If you think you can't get food poisoning from plant-based foods, think again. Yes, animal products like meat and dairy can harbour harmful bacteria — but so can produce and grains.
It’s important that food businesses, managers and food workers take the time to learn about which specific vegan and vegetarian foods could put customers at risk and how to reduce these risks through proper food handling and storage.
How vegan foods become contaminated
A plant-based diet may be good for our health, but plant-based foods and ingredients can become contaminated just as easily as any other food.
On a farm, crops may become contaminated if they come into contact with:
- contaminated water / sewage
- animal feces / manure
- feces from birds and pests
In a processing plant or food service business, contamination can occur following direct or indirect contact with:
- contaminated food contact surfaces
- contaminated equipment, dishes or utensils
- other contaminated food
- sick Food Handlers
- Food Handlers with dirty hands
If food is contaminated at any point in the food supply chain, it could cause illness — especially if the food is served raw or lightly cooked.
High-risk vegan foods
High-risk foods that require little or no preparation provide an ideal breeding ground for food-borne bacteria and other pathogens that can cause one or many people to get sick. High-risk foods include a range of plant-based foods and ingredients. Some examples include:
- fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g. lettuce, spinach, melons, raspberries)
- cooked rice, lentils, pasta, beans and chickpeas
- pre-cut or pre-washed fruits and vegetables
- unpasteurized fruit juices
- raw sprouts
All of the above have been implicated in food poisoning outbreaks worldwide.
Know how to handle high-risk vegan foods
Tofu is a popular meat substitute and a staple of the vegan diet. While tofu may last longer than real meat, it’s important to remember that tofu is a perishable item and can go bad. If it’s slimy on the outside, has little bubbles in it, smells “weird” or tastes fermented, throw it away.
Serving raw tofu is also not recommended, even if the tofu is pre-cooked. Pre-cooked tofu can become contaminated after the cooking stage, so if you serve it raw, you risk serving contaminated food.
Uncooked rice may contain Bacillus cereus spores, which can survive the cooking process. If rice is not refrigerated as soon as possible after cooking, B. cereus spores can grow into bacteria and multiply; the longer cooked rice stays in the Temperature Danger Zone, the more time B. cereus bacteria have to grow.
Refrigeration only slows down the growth of bacteria, so if you serve refrigerated rice that is contaminated with lots of bacteria, you could make someone very sick. Refrigerate cooked rice as soon as possible, reheat before serving and serve within three days. The same rule applies to other cooked dried foods, including pasta, lentils, beans and chickpeas.
Uncooked and lightly cooked sprouts have been linked to dozens of bacterial outbreaks (mostly of Salmonella and E. coli) across North America and around the world. All types of sprouts, including alfalfa, mung bean, clover and radish sprouts, can spread infection, and they are particularly risky because:
- they are grown in a warm and wet environment — the perfect conditions for bacterial growth
- dangerous bacteria can contaminate the seed, which is almost impossible to clean
- they are usually served raw and therefore do not undergo a cooking “kill step”
If you must serve sprouts, make sure you cook them first (or better yet, take them off the menu).
Some bread moulds can produce toxic substances called mycotoxins. Mycotoxins can cause some very unpleasant symptoms (e.g. diarrhea, nausea, vomiting) and some of them have even been linked to long-term health issues like cancer and immune deficiencies.
Cutting off the mouldy bits does not eliminate the risk, as thread-like roots can often shoot down deep into the bread, spreading invisible contamination. While it is unlikely that a bit of mould will kill you, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you work in a food business, throw away mouldy bread and serve a safe slice.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Fresh fruit and vegetables are excellent sources of essential vitamins and nutrients, but they can also be a source of harmful bacteria and other microbial pathogens, including:
- E. coli 0157:H7
- Hepatitis A
Symptoms of infection with food-borne pathogens typically include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Some food-borne pathogens, such as Hepatitis A and E. coli 0157:H7, can also cause damage to the liver, kidneys and/or intestinal lining.
Any food-borne infection could cause serious complications for some people – or worse. If it grows on or in the ground, it must be washed carefully and thoroughly in cold running water to remove bacteria and pesticides.
PRE-WASHED OR PRE-CUT FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
The more a food is handled and processed, the more likely it is to pick up harmful microorganisms that can cause food poisoning. Pre-washed or pre-cut fruits and vegetables have been linked to several outbreaks of Listeria, a food-borne bacteria that, unlike most bacteria, can grow and spread even in the refrigerator.
Listeria infection, also called listeriosis, is the leading cause of deaths related to food-borne illness in Canada, and it can cause devastating consequences for expecting mothers, including miscarriage, stillbirth, uterine infection and preterm delivery. In fact, pregnant women are 20 times more likely to become infected with Listeria than non-pregnant healthy adults.
For her sake (and for the sake of all your customers), wash that pre-washed produce again, or don’t use it.
UNPASTEURIZED FRUIT JUICES
When fruits and vegetables are fresh-squeezed or processed raw, bacteria from the produce can end up in the juice. Unless the juice is heat-treated (pasteurized), it could cause food poisoning just as easily as raw produce.
Most commercially available juices are pasteurized, but some grocery stores, health food stores, farmers’ markets or juice bars sell unpasteurized juice. If you’re unsure about a product in your food business, check for warning statements on the product label.
Food safety training
There is no substitute for skilled and knowledgeable Food Handlers when it comes to protecting your customers from food safety risks like food poisoning. Ongoing food safety training and resources (e.g. posters, guides, checklists) can help you to ensure the safety of everyone in your business.
Contact the Canadian Institute of Food Safety for more information about managing the food safety risks in your business.