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5 Risk Factors That Cause Most Foodborne Illnesses

Hot holding food at event.

If you’ve never had the “stomach bug,” chances are you’ve known somebody who has. Stomach pains and never-ending trips to the bathroom are a few of the tell-tale signs that can indicate that you’ve eaten contaminated food.

Every year, 48 million Americans become sick from foodborne illness. How is this possible? There are 5 major risk factors that cause most foodborne illness outbreaks.

  1. Holding TCS foods at the wrong temperatures

    Assuming you aren’t interested in a buffet of bacteria, you should know that foods with high moisture content are more susceptible to bacterial growth and can be dangerous to consume if held at the wrong temperatures.

    Meat, dairy, cooked vegetables, and sliced fruits are just a few of the foods considered to be “TCS” foods, or foods that require time or temperature control for safety. When preparing foods that will not be eaten immediately, such as foods in a buffet line, food should be kept—or held—at the right temperature in order to prevent bacteria from growing to dangerous levels.

    Hot food should be held at 135°F or hotter; cold food should be held at 41°F or colder. And don’t forget to check the temperature of held food frequently.

  2. Cooking foods to the wrong temperatures

    It is a common misconception that all food bacteria are destroyed simply by adding heat. The truth is, not all foods are cooked equal.

    Some pathogens that live on animal products, such as Salmonella, can only be killed at specific temperatures. If these temperatures are not reached during cooking, the bacteria may not be killed and reduced to safe levels for consumption. Therefore, internal temperatures and cooking times should vary depending on the food. Consult this Cooking Times & Temperatures poster to be sure food is cooked properly.

    It is also important to note that some pathogens, such as E. coli (Escherichia coli), create heat-stable toxins that cannot be destroyed by cooking, no matter the temperature. To prevent the spread of foodborne illness from these pathogens, make sure to hold cooked foods to the correct temperatures, always rinse fruits and vegetables, and only buy from approved suppliers.

  3. Using contaminated utensils and equipment

    Dirty or contaminated utensils and equipment can transfer contamination to food and cause foodborne illness. Contamination can happen in a number of ways. With lack of proper cleaning and sanitation, old food residue or dangerous pathogens can build up on utensils or equipment.

    Be sure to clean and sanitize your equipment and utensils anytime you’re switching tasks, after working on a task for 4 continuous hours, or anytime you think your workstation could be contaminated.

  4. Failing to follow personal hygiene rules

    Everyone’s least favorite garnish should be germs. Good personal hygiene is essential for eliminating tens of thousands of bacteria and viruses that could otherwise be transferred to food. Some hygienic necessities for food preparation include showering, wearing clean clothes, and washing hands. In fact, one of the biggest causes of foodborne illness outbreaks is improperly washed hands.

  5. Purchasing food from unsafe sources

    As a kid, you were told not to take candy from strangers; as an adult, you should know that you must never purchase food from unapproved suppliers. Government regulators have created policies, systems, and benchmarks to help ensure that food leaves factories, slaughterhouses, and farms in a safe condition.

    Approved suppliers have been inspected and found to be compliant with these rules. Buying food from unapproved suppliers means gambling with food safety. Always purchase from approved suppliers.

There you have it—the five risk factors that cause most foodborne illnesses. Are you guilty of one or more of these dangerous kitchen blunders? It’s never too late to change your ways. Avoid these major food safety mistakes and avoid catching or spreading the dreaded “stomach bug.”

To learn more safe food practices, check out our food handler training!

—Ariel Jensen

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2016. It has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

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