7 of the World’s Most Dangerous Foods

These seven foods can cause severe illness or death if not handled and prepared exactly right.
December 9, 2019

Safe handling and preparation of food is crucial to ensuring food safety, whether you’re a home-based canning business or the world’s largest franchise.

Food handling could always be a matter of life and death, but there are a number of foods around the world that require expert-level care and precision to be eaten without causing a severe illness or (a horrible) death.

You’ve probably heard of fugu, or pufferfish, a Japanese delicacy that must be prepared exactly right if you don’t want customers to asphyxiate in your dining room, but there are more than a few foods that can kill when not prepared correctly.

Some of these foods are exotic delicacies that are hard to find in Australia, while others are common staples in your pantry or dry goods storage. From fugu to kidney beans, here are seven of the world’s most dangerous foods.

1. Fugu

Fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish and the dish prepared from it can be lethally poisonous. The ovaries, intestines and liver of fugu contain tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin up to 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide.

A lethal dose of tetrodotoxin is smaller than the head of a pin and a single fish has enough poison to kill 30 people. If prepared incorrectly, eating fugu can paralyse motor nerves and cause fatal respiratory arrest.

Japanese chefs must undergo years of training to obtain a fugu-preparing licence, making the dish (understandably) expensive at up to $200 a plate.

Despite these regulations, numerous people die each year as a result of improperly cooked fugu, but this hasn't deterred the Japanese; approximately 10,000 tonnes of fugu is consumed every year.

2. Ackee fruit

Eating ackee fruit, the national fruit of Jamaica, is a dangerous game. Unripe ackee contains a poison called hypoglycin, so the fruit must be fully ripe and allowed to open naturally on the tree in order to be safely eaten.

Do not open a fruit yourself (it must open on its own) and only eat the cream-coloured, fleshy pulp around the seeds (they look a little like brains). Never eat any of the pink flesh or the black seeds, which are highly toxic.

Improper preparation of ackee fruit can cause serious illness (known as ‘Jamaican Vomiting Sickness’), which can lead to coma or death. Jamaicans don’t seem to mind the risk, though; their national dish is ackee and saltfish.

3. Sannakji

Sannakji, a Korean dish, is live baby octopus tentacles that are cut into pieces, seasoned and served immediately.

Culinary daredevils eat the tentacles while they are still writhing on the plate, which is a very dangerous game.

Suction pads on the tentacles maintain suction even after the tentacles are severed, so diners must chew the tentacles before they stick to the roof of the mouth.

If they don’t, the tentacles can stick to the mouth and throat and cause the customer to choke to death. According to Food & Wine, six people choke and die from eating (or attempting to eat) sannakji each year.

4. Elderberries

Elderberries, which are commonly used in jams, wines, teas, syrups and supplements, are safe to eat if they are fully ripe and properly cooked.

However, elderberry leaves, twigs and seeds contain potentially fatal levels of cyanide-producing glycoside. If the fruit is not strained correctly or isn’t ripe enough, it can cause nausea, vomiting and severe diarrhoea.

If consumed in large quantities, it may cause seizures, coma or even death.

Just a cup of incorrectly prepared elderberry juice, wine or tea could cause illness, but you would have to drink up to five glasses to be in life threatening danger.

5. Rhubarb

Rhubarb, the bright vegetable in jams and pies (earning it the nickname ‘the pie plant'), has a dark side. Its leaves, which should not be used in baking or cooking, contain oxalic acid.

Consuming too much oxalic acid can be fatal, though you would have to eat large quantities of rhubarb leaves (approximately 11 pounds) for death to be ‘on the table’.

However, consuming small amounts in improperly prepared foods can cause a number of uncomfortable symptoms, such as a burning sensation in the mouth and throat, nausea, diarrhoea, eye pain, difficulty breathing and dark red urine.

More seriously, oxalic acid can result in the development of kidney stones, which are hard deposits of minerals and acid salts that stick together in concentrated urine, causing nausea and intense pain.

6. Cassava

Cassava, a tropical root crop similar to taro and yam, is often used to make pudding (‘tapioca’), juice, cakes and chips, but its leaves and roots can produce deadly cyanide. To prevent poisoning, cassava must be properly cooked before canning, eating or serving.

Cassava is classified into two main types: sweet and bitter. Sweet cassava only requires cooking to reduce the cyanide content to non-toxic levels, but bitter cassava contains more toxins and must be grated, soaked and cooked properly prior to consumption.

Only sweet cassava, which contains low levels of cyanogenic glycosides (50mg/kg), is permitted to be used for food in Australia and New Zealand. Sweet cassava must be peeled and cooked thoroughly as per the Australian Food Standards Code. Learn how to safely prepare sweet cassava.

7. Red kidney beans

Red kidney beans are rich in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals; in their raw or undercooked form, they also contain high levels of phytohaemagglutinin, a toxic variety of lectin.

Phytohaemagglutinin can damage the gut wall and may prevent it from absorbing nutrients properly. Symptoms of poisoning may include diarrhoea, abdominal pain, vomiting and headaches.

Dried red kidney beans must be prepared just right — soaking for a number of hours and boiling for at least 10 minutes — in order to be safe.

In fact, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cooking dried red kidney beans for less than 10 minutes at any temperature less than boiling can actually increase the toxicity five-fold, so beans are more toxic than if they were consumed raw.

Food safety in Australia

While the majority of food we eat in Australia is “safer” than these toxic or otherwise perilous dishes, it’s important to remember that any food can be dangerous if it is not handled properly.

Food poisoning and complications from food-borne illness, anaphylaxis, choking and injuries from contaminated food happen regularly in Australia — between four and five million times every year.

High-risk foods like meat, cheese and seafood can harbour and nurture the growth of bacteria and parasites, and any food can be a vehicle for food-borne viruses like Norovirus or hepatitis A.

As per the Food Standards Code (section 3.2.2), all Food Handlers in Australia must be trained in safe food preparation, preventing cross-contamination, managing allergens and other food safety critical tasks to minimise health risks.

(Nothing could be easier — an online food handling course can be completed in just a few hours.)

In most states and territories, food premises must also employ a Food Safety Supervisor to take responsibility for overall food safety in the facility.

To become a Food Safety Supervisor, a nominated employee must complete a nationally recognised Food Safety Supervisor course, such as the Australian Institute of Food Safety (AIFS) online Food Safety Supervisor course.

Food Safety Supervisor training, naturally, is more in-depth than Food Handler training, but the AIFS online Food Safety Supervisor course can be completed in just one day.

Contact the Australian Institute of Food Safety for more information about food safety training near you.