Food risks and good practices to prevent them
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Be careful how you purchase, store, handle, cook, and consume food. Without meaning to, you could encourage the development of pathogenic microorganisms or harmful chemical substances, which can cause potentially serious health issues.

What risks do foods pose?

Discover the various types of risks surrounding food consumption.

Biological risks

Biological risks associated with food consumption include contracting pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites, which can cause diseases. Most are microorganisms; while some parasites are visible to the naked eye, they still measure just a few millimetres in length.

Pathogenic microorganisms can proliferate in foods in certain conditions and at certain temperatures, reaching sufficient levels to cause infections in those who eat them. Some can produce toxins which accumulate in foods and can lead to food poisoning.

Keeping foods at refrigeration, freezing and deep-freezing temperatures slows down the proliferation of microorganisms, while keeping them at room temperature is conducive to their growth. Adequate cooking of food deactivates the main pathogens, rendering them harmless. However, once generated, some toxins can instead persist in food even after cooking. To prevent microorganisms from multiplying, it is therefore important to always follow good hygiene practices when purchasing, storing and preparing meals.

Food-borne toxinfections can lead to various health issues depending on the type of pathogen involved. In most healthy individuals, they cause gastrointestinal disorders, such as vomiting and diarrhoea, and flu-like symptoms which clear up within a few days. The effects can instead be more severe in some population groups, such as the elderly and immunocompromised individuals (in whom it can cause septicaemia, encephalitis, or meningitis) or pregnant women (in whom it can lead to premature birth, foetal malformations, and miscarriage).

Among the main pathogenic agents that can contaminate foods are:

Chemical risks

Chemical food risks stem from the unintended presence of substances potentially detrimental to health such as natural toxins, environmental contaminants and residues of veterinary drugs used at farms.

Potentially harmful chemicals can also be generated by improper cooking procedures in both industry and the home, or by adverse effects of substances used in food manufacturing.

These substances can accumulate in food products and subsequently in the human body, with potentially toxic effects on various organs. Depending on the quantity, frequency and time of their consumption, harmful effects can occur within a short time interval (acute toxicity) or in the medium-long term (chronic toxicity).

Accordingly, the law sets maximum levels at which potentially harmful substances can be present in foodstuffs without posing a risk for consumers. These limits are used as part of regular official controls carried out by local health authorities and agri-food fraud units to guarantee food safety.

Most of the harmful chemical substances that can be found in foods are not removed by washing and cooking. To lower chemical risk, the first rule of thumb is to purchase foods from conventional sales channels, which are legally bound to perform self-control procedures and subject to official controls. Importantly, individuals should vary their diet and avoid always eating the same foods.

Below are some of the main chemical substances that can be found in foods and are detrimental to health:

Physical risks

Physical food risks occur when objects such as slivers of metal, glass, plastic, wood, or stone accidentally find their way into food items, potentially causing suffocation, cuts, digestive system injury or broken teeth in individuals who ingest them.

In the food manufacturing industry these risks are monitored by controlling the integrity of production line equipment or machinery prior to and after production or – in the case of metals – by installing a metal detector at the end of the production line. This is activated in the event of equipment damage causing the loss of metal fragments, or a screw or bolt accidentally becoming detached. The food being manufactured is consequently discarded and kept off the market.

However, physical risks can also occur in the catering industry or in domestic food preparation. For instance, a glass jar may turn out to have been broken or kitchen utensil components to be missing and have ended up in the meal being prepared. In such cases it is better to avoid risks by discarding rather than eating the food.

Physical risks are not limited to the presence of foreign bodies but can also be associated with the very components of the food itself. Fish or meat bones, for example, can cause suffocation, particularly when ingested by smaller children. Accordingly, they must be carefully removed during fish or meat preparation, particularly if they are to be eaten by children.

Intolerances and allergies

Intolerances and allergies are two ways in which the human organism can react to substances found in different foods.


An intolerance refers to a negative bodily reaction caused by difficulty in digesting or metabolising a food item or one of its constituents, such as carbohydrates, proteins, or lipids. Individuals with intolerances typically have enzymatic deficiencies or lack – or produce an insufficient amount of - specific proteins (enzymes) needed by the body to metabolise and assimilate certain foods or parts of them. These individuals can be born without them, or the intolerance can build up over time. One of the most common intolerances in southern Europe is towards lactose, i.e. the sugar contained in milk.

Intolerance is closely linked to the ingested quantity of non-tolerated food (dose-dependent). Intolerance symptoms can take the form of diarrhoea, bloating and stomach cramps; they can also appear a while after eating the food (up to several hours or, in rare cases, even after a few days), making it difficult to recognise and associate the incident with the consumed food.


An allergy refers to a negative reaction to a specific substance (allergen) caused by the immune system. The source of the reaction is the formation of specific antibodies responsible for defending the organism. The interaction between these antibodies and the allergen releases histamine, a substance that acts as a chemical mediator of inflammation, but also plays the role of neurotransmitter. Histamine is the main cause of the symptoms characterising all allergic reactions, which in some cases can be very severe, such as itchiness, a runny nose, skin rashes, swelling, breathlessness, and breathing difficulties.

Allergens are substances which are harmless for most people. However, some individuals are genetically prone to have allergic reactions towards them. The most common food allergens are: cereals containing gluten (wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt), milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios), lupin beans, soya beans, celery, sesame seeds, mustard, and all derivatives of these foods.

Allergic reactions are generally dose-independent: i.e. even a tiny quantity can trigger a reaction whose severity is subjective and unpredictable.

How can you guard against food risks?

Discover the good practices for reducing foodborne risks, from the time of food purchase to its consumption.

  • Make a list of the things you need before going shopping and don’t buy surplus food, which could spoil or expire if kept for too long.
  • Shop at regular sales outlets, which are subject to official controls by health authorities, such as market stalls, grocery shops, supermarkets, professional producers and salespeople (avoid purchasing homemade produce from unlicenced vendors).
  • Select foods which appear undamaged, fresh, and appetising. Don’t purchase or consume products with broken, dented, or bloated packaging
  • Read labels carefully, checking products’ expiry/best before dates, in addition to the instructions for storing and preparing the food, particularly in the case of items which are perishable or of animal origin.
  • When shopping, make refrigerated and frozen foods the last items you pick up. Avoid products with frost on the packaging: it may indicate a break in the cold chain during food distribution and display at in the sales outlet.
  • Try to put fresh refrigerated, frozen and deep-frozen foods in the fridge and freezer as soon as possible after their purchase, to avoid breaking the cold chain.
  • Choose sales outlets close to home when buying fresh, frozen or deep-frozen products.
  • Avoid long stops between the shop and your home, leaving fresh, frozen or deep-frozen products at room temperature or in overheated environments (e.g. in the car) for long periods of time.
  • Use thermal bags for transporting fresh, frozen, and deep-frozen products, particularly at warmer times of the year.
  • Don’t store foods in cupboards, pantries, fridges, and freezers beyond their expiry date.
  • Store stable foods (packaged and canned) in cool, dry, dark store cupboards and pantries.
  • Keep the fridge temperature at +4/+5°C and freezer temperature at approximately -17/-18°C , using the built-in display or thermometers provided.
  • Regularly clean the fridge and freezer (at least once per month) using specific detergents.
  • Keep foods separate from each other and don’t overstock the fridge or freezer : air needs to be able to circulate around foods to cool them efficiently.
  • Keep raw foods separate from cooked and/or ready-to-eat products to avoid cross-contamination (microorganisms and allergens present in raw foods could be transferred to ready-to-eat products).
  • Place each food item on the most suitable shelf in the fridge: cooked and ready-to-eat foods, eggs, dairy products, desserts and creams go on the top-middle shelves; raw meat and fish go on the lower ones; fruit and vegetables go in the special drawers; drinks, butter, and less perishable goods go on the door shelves.
  • Divide meat, fish or homemade foods into smaller portions before freezing and place them in clean containers or disposable bags, labelling them with the date of freezing (the time limit for their consumption varies by type of food, but you are advised to never exceed 6 months).
  • Don’t wash eggs before putting them in the fridge: the water could cause pathogenic germ penetration. If they are dirty, wipe them with a damp cloth before using them.
  • Be mindful of your state of health: avoid cooking if you are feeling unwell, particularly if you have symptoms such as fever or diarrhoea
  • Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water (it is not enough to rinse them) both before you start making a meal and during its preparation if, in the meantime, you need to use the toilet, blow your nose, touch pets, or touch objects and part of other people’s bodies.
  • Adopt some hygiene rules and tools: sanitize kitchen worktops and use clean utensils, remove rings and bracelets from your hands, wear a work apron, tie your hair back if it is long, and use latex gloves to handle raw foods (particularly meat and fish).
  • Carefully choose your ingredients: avoid foods which smell or taste bad, or are in bloated or damaged packaging, or tins and jars which present mould, bubbles or emit gas once opened. Use foods stored in the fridge, freezer, cupboard or pantry in the order of their expiry date.
  • Properly defrost frozen foods, particularly meat or fish: do not defrost them at room temperature (e.g. leave them in the sink) but use the fridge or microwave. As a rule of thumb, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the packaging.
  • Carefully wash fruit and vegetables before eating them or including them as ingredients, using running drinking water or, to be more effective, chlorine-based detergents (conversely, bicarbonate of soda does not eliminate pathogenic microorganisms).
  • Don’t wash meat before cooking it, particularly chicken and pork: any splashes could contaminate utensils and worktops, or any other ready-to-eat foods present in the kitchen, with pathogenic microorganisms.
  • Carefully clean kitchen worktops and utensils that make contact with raw meats, unwashed fruit and vegetables, using soap and detergents (it is not enough to simply rinse them).
  • Use different cutting boards for uncooked foods (raw meat and fish, unwashed fruit and vegetables) and foods that are not to be cooked, or carefully wash them with soap and water between one food item and the next.
  • Do not break eggs on the edge of the container you are using to prepare them: use another recipient and bin the shells straight after breaking them (do not leave them on the worktop).
  • When cooking foods in advance to be eaten on a later day, don’t leave them for a long time at room temperature. They should be placed in the fridge as soon as possible after cooling. To speed up cooling, portion and/or place the food in sealed containers and cool it down with cold running water.
  • Take care to fully cook eggs, meat, fish, and fish products (particularly bivalve molluscs). Avoid recipes in which they are kept raw or undercooked.
  • Avoid charring or blackening parts of the food, particularly when grilling or cooking with a hotplate.
  • Use non-stick pans to limit the quantity of oils and fats, particularly when long cooking times are required, such as for stewed or braised items.
  • Use kitchen thermometers to regulate the temperature when baking or barbecuing foods.
  • You are recommended to fry using olive or peanut oil avoiding, or only occasionally using, vegetable oils, butter, lard and margarine.
  • Avoid reusing oils for subsequent frying.
  • When steaming foods, cut them into small pieces to make sure they are properly cooked.
  • Vary the foods you eat as much as possible, following a diet based on the food pyramid: eat cereals, fruit and vegetables on a daily basis; limit your weekly consumption of meat, fish, cheese and eggs; have cold cuts, sweet foods and alcohol only occasionally.
  • Avoid eating foods that do not look fresh and appetizing, particularly if they smell or taste bad or are mouldy.
  • Use foods stored in the fridge, freezer, cupboard or pantry in the order of their expiry date.
  • Eat any meat and fish kept in the fridge within a few days.
  • Carefully wash your hands with soap and warm water (it’s not enough to just rinse them) before sitting down to the table.
  • Remove any burnt or charred parts from foods before eating them (e.g. the pizza crust).
  • Limit your consumption of rich foods, such as fried or oily items, and try to avoid eating them in the evening, to allow them to be digested and for the sake of your liver.
  • After the meal, leftovers can be kept in the fridge for 2 or 3 days, but should be stored in clean, sealed containers, on the higher shelves and well away from raw foods.
  • Do not keep leftovers that have been left at room temperature for over 4 hours: any food left out after this time should be discarded.
  • Keep creams and sauces in the fridge, particularly ones made with raw eggs, and eat them within a few days at most. Do not leave soiled cutlery in the storage container to avoid contamination.
  • When freezing leftovers, avoid using paper, cardboard, or aluminium containers. Opt instead for sealed food containers designed for freezing, such as disposable freezer bags.
  • Defrost leftovers in the fridge, or in cold water in a closed container to prevent food nutrients being washed away by the water.
  • Before eating leftovers, make sure they are thoroughly and evenly heated up.

Do you know how controls on food work?

Before reaching the dinner table, foods are subject to an extensive series of controls, to which manufacturers, distributors and the various health authorities all contribute by law.


In Europe, food business operators (FBOs) are legally bound to periodically check their products or transformation processes, based on the characteristics of the foods and on risk assessments for those items.

Each FBO must therefore draw up a self-inspection manual and a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Plan to be implemented, evaluated and documented with a view to guaranteeing the foods’ safety and integrity.

The required laboratory analyses, as defined in the HACCP plan, can be microbiological or chemical. Each FBO must have the support of both internal and external analysis laboratories, which must be included in specific regional registries.

Self-inspections enable food manufacturers to independently monitor and solve any non-compliances related to their food manufacturing, through continuous improvements to company processes and microbiological and chemical risk control protocols.

Official controls

Official food controls are a set of activities designed to guarantee food product compliance and safety and to ensure that food legislation requirements are met. They involve the entire food production chain: from controls on raw materials to site inspections at farms, to monitoring of manufacturing processes and distribution to wholesalers and retailers

For example, in Italy official controls at food manufacturers are based on national plans drawn up by the Ministry of Health, locally coordinated by the Regions, and on inspections by various competent health authorities, such as: local health authorities (ASL), agri-food fraud units (NAS), border control units (PCF), or veterinary offices for European Union requirements (UVAC).

Laboratory analyses are performed by legally appointed laboratories, such as Istituti Zooprofilattici Sperimentali (IZS) and Regional Agencies for Environmental Protection (ARPA).

When samples fail to comply with the required safety standards (due, for example, to levels of biological or chemical contamination above legally set limits), the most appropriate actions are implemented to safeguard consumers and public health by local health authorities and the Ministry of Health, such as the withdrawal of products from the supply chain and the sanctioning of companies found to have committed offences.

Withdrawals, recalls and alerts

Food alerts can be triggered by official controls, self-inspections, consumer notifications, clinical cases, or following food incidents. In all cases, laboratory analyses are performed on the food items involved to determine the presence and quantity of any substances and microorganisms that may be detrimental to health.

When food items are found to be positive on laboratory analyses, the manufacturers in question can intervene in two ways:

  • through withdrawal, i.e. by preventing the batches containing the unsafe food from entering the supply chain, if they have not yet reached consumers;

  • through recall, if the unsafe food has already entered the supply chain and been sold. In this case, manufacturers and large-scale retailers post information needed to identify any already purchased unsafe food items on notices at the points of sale and through warnings on their respective websites.

For example, in Italy the intervention is implemented by the local health authorities (ASL), to which – in the case of recall – the manufacturers also provide a list of sales outlets where the batches of harmful products have been distributed. The LHAs then inform the Ministry of Health about the alert and the actions taken. The Ministry publishes information on any recalls on its website and, in turn, notifies all regional LHAs in which the batch has been distributed. This enables the local authorities to check that the unsafe food has actually been recalled.

If the products have been marketed abroad, the Ministry also notifies the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) to enable all European countries in which the unsafe products have been distributed to remove them from the supply chain and take the necessary measures to safeguard public health.