By Katharine Hopkins

The same care needs to be taken when preparing plant-based food as any other food. Plants are classed as a lower risk than meat and other animal products, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make you ill. 

Plants have a multitude of benefits and should be consumed daily, so don’t let this put you off. A few simple steps can ensure you are eating food that is safe and good for your body. Safe food handling is important whether you are preparing food at home or catering business. 

What is food poisoning?
Let’s go back to basics and explore what food poisoning is. We’ve all heard stories about people getting ill after a dodgy takeaway, but what actually causes the reaction?

Food poisoning is our body reacting to toxins that have affected the food. The reaction can be mild or severe depending on the bacteria ingested. The severity of food poisoning differs from person to person. People classed as high-risk consumers include the elderly, pregnant women, young children and anyone with a weakened immune system. Reactions range from nausea to diarrhea and in some cases can be fatal. So it is not something to be taken lightly. 

It can be hard to pinpoint what has caused the illness. The bacteria needs four things to grow, time, warmth, food and moisture.

High-risk foods
You should take care when preparing all foods, but the plant-based foods below are more likely to harbor harmful bacteria. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables — Raw fruit and vegetables are a prime target for bacteria. They can be contaminated through any stage of the supply chain. The raw fruits and vegetables can come into contact with contaminated water or feces from animals or birds at the farm. Before it gets to the shop shelves, the food could have been handled by someone with an illness, come into contact with a contaminated surface or utensil or pests during processing. 

Rice — Dried rice can naturally contain a spore that is resistant to heat. Once cooked, the spores can develop into bacteria which causes food poisoning. 

To minimize the risk, rice should be eaten immediately after cooking or cooled down within an hour of cooking and stored in the fridge. The bacteria needs time to grow enough to cause illness, refrigeration slows down the growth of bacteria by taking it below an optimum temperature for multiplying.

Beans and pulses — Any canned beans or pulses you buy should be safe to eat. They have been treated to prevent food poisoning. However, you should avoid buying tins that are dented or damaged in any way as this might have allowed air to get into the product. 

The food poisoning risk comes from cooking dried beans and pulses. Kidney beans are an especially high-risk food. Kidney beans naturally contain a toxin that is harmful to us. To avoid becoming ill, dried beans should be soaked before being cooked at a boil to eliminate the toxins. Slow cooking kidney beans from raw doesn’t eliminate the toxins so this method of cooking should be avoided. 

Tofu — Tofu might seem innocent, but like lots of other fresh foods, it can go bad. It is important to use tofu before its use-by date. Signs that tofu is off are changes in smell, a slimy texture or it tastes fermented. If these are ignored you could have a nasty case of food poisoning on your hands.

Raw sprouts — This might seem like a strange food to be high risk, but the way beans and pulses are sprouted is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. They are sprouted in a warm and wet environment and the spouts are often served raw. There is no way of guaranteeing the sprout is free from harmful bacteria as it can affect the seed which can’t be cleaned.

If you are serving sprouted products it is best to cook them before serving. If this is not possible then make sure they are stored correctly and avoid giving them to people who fall into the high-risk categories

Bread — Bread is a high risk once it starts to go moldy. Mold should never be ignored on any food product, but bread is food on which mold is seen more regularly because of its short shelf life. If you spot mold on bread, all of the bread in the package should be thrown away. The mold you can see might only be a small portion of what has infected the bread. The mold can spread into the bread further than you can see and the mold spores can contaminated the rest of the loaf. It is safer to buy fresh bread than to risk a slice of contaminated bread. 

How to safely store food
It is important to store foods according to the instructions on the label. Some foods will need refrigeration while others are fine being stored at room temperature. 

When storing food in the fridge, cross-contamination can still occur. Your fridge must be clean to prevent any bacteria from getting onto fresh food. 

Food should be separated in the refrigerator. Any raw meat products need to be at the bottom of the fridge to prevent any juices from dripping onto other food products. Food that is going to be consumed raw should be on the top of the fridge, this includes salad items and pre-prepared items that aren’t going to be heated before consumption. 

Any leftover food should be covered and left to cool before storing in the fridge. 

How to safely prepare and cook food
A key area to be aware of when preparing food is cross-contamination. Always make sure your work surfaces and hands are clean before preparing food. Ways to make you more conscious of the different contaminants is to use different colored chopping boards and knives for different foods. The key foods that should be kept separate are:

  • Raw meat
  • Raw fish
  • Cooked Meat 
  • Vegetables that are going to be cooked 
  • Fruit and vegetables that are going to be served raw 

The foods at the highest risk of contamination are foods that require no further cooking, for example, salad items or fruit. Bacteria can be in soil and other contaminants might be on the food. Raw foods should be thoroughly washed in cold water before being prepared. 

Ideally, these should be prepared first and stored in sealed containers while the rest of the food is prepared. This eliminates the potential of cross-contamination from other foods like meat or fish during preparation. It is also recommended that if you are preparing food for a high-risk group, especially pregnant women, pre-washed or ready to eat items such as salads or chopped fruit should be washed again to eliminate any bacteria that might have contaminated the product during production. 

All fresh fruit and vegetables should be washed before preparing and peeled if that is an option. Peeling the food offers another way of eliminating possible bacteria. 

Cooking food is a key stage in the elimination of bacteria. The optimum temperatures needed for bacteria to thrive are 8 degrees to 60 degrees C. Once food has reached over 60 degrees C the bacteria start to die. 

Plant-based foods should be cooked according to packet instructions or until piping hot. This is equally as important when reheating food items. 

If you want to find out more information about safely storing and cooking food a food hygiene course such as this one (https://essentialfoodhygiene.co.uk/courses/level-2-food-hygiene-and-safety-catering/) is great whether you are cooking at home or as a food business.


Katharine Hopkins

About the author: Katharine Hopkins has a BSc (2:1) in Food Marketing Management from Sheffield Hallam University. For her year in industry as part of my course, I worked in NPD for M&S and Bakkavor. After graduation she worked for Speedibake (part of Associated British Foods) for one year in NPD. She then went on to do NPD for Premier Foods for two years. Currently she is a bakery manager at Seven Hills Bakery in Sheffield, England.