Can Vegans Get Food Poisoning?

Anyone can get food poisoning, whether they eat meat or not. Find out how to keep the vegans in your restaurant safe by following these essential food safety rules for plant-based diets.
July 2, 2019

Yes, vegans can get food poisoning! While many of us associate food poisoning with foods such as meat, cheese, eggs and seafood, there are plenty of plants and plant-based foods that can pack a bacterial punch — and can also be contaminated with naturally-occurring toxins, viruses and parasites.

As the plant-based diet increases in popularity, it’s important for all Food Handlers, especially those who work in vegan or vegetarian restaurants, to know the risks that are inherent in plant-based foods and vegan cuisine, and to play their part in reducing food-borne illness.

High-risk vegan foods

High-risk foods that require little or no preparation — and that do not go through a cooking “kill step” — 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 of these are:

  • tofu
  • rice
  • raw sprouts
  • vegan bread
  • fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g. leafy greens, cantaloupes)
  • cooked lentils, pasta, beans and chickpeas
  • pre-cut or pre-washed fruits and vegetables
  • unpasteurised fruit juices
  • herbs and spices
  • coconut
  • nuts

All the above have been implicated in food poisoning outbreaks worldwide.

How plant-based food becomes contaminated

A plant-based diet may be good for our health, but plant-based foods and ingredients can become contaminated as easily as any other food. On a farm, crops and produce may become contaminated if they come into contact with:

  • contaminated water
  • animal faeces / manure
  • faeces from birds and pests

In a food business, contamination can occur following direct or indirect contact with:

  • contaminated food contact surfaces
  • contaminated equipment, dishes or utensils
  • contaminated food (e.g. raw meat, cooked rice)
  • sick Food Handlers
  • Food Handlers with dirty hands
  • pests

How to protect vegan (and plant-loving) customers from food-borne illness

KNOW THE TOFU RISKS

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.

It’s also inadvisable to serve raw tofu dishes, 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.

REFRIGERATE COOKED DRIED FOODS ASAP

Most of us would know (or could guess) that meat, eggs, fish and dairy are high-risk foods, but did you know that dry goods — such as rice, pasta, lentils, beans and chickpeas — can also become dangerous once they’re cooked? Adding water to dried foods means that these foods are now moist, low in acid and high in protein, which are the ideal conditions for bacteria to grow.

Uncooked rice may contain Bacillus cereus spores, which not only survive the cooking process, but are activated by it. If rice is not refrigerated immediately after cooling — refer to cooling guidelines specified in Food Safety Standard 3.2.2, clause 7 (3) — B. cereus spores can grow into bacteria and multiply; the longer cooked rice stays in the Temperature Danger Zone (5°C - 60°C), the more time B. cereus bacteria have to grow.

Because refrigeration only slows down the growth of bacteria, if you serve refrigerated rice that is contaminated with lots of bacteria, you could make someone very sick. The take-away: refrigerate cooked rice (and other cooked dried foods) as soon as possible, reheat before serving and serve within three days.

COOK SPROUTS (OR SKIP THEM ALTOGETHER)

Sprouts are grown in warm and wet conditions, which are perfect for bacterial growth. Contaminated bean sprouts, alfalfa sprouts and other varieties have been linked to dozens of food-borne illness outbreaks around the world, including one of the worst known outbreaks of E. coli infection.

Sprouts are also difficult to clean and are usually served raw, which means dangerous bacteria remains intact. If you must serve sprouts, make sure you cook them first (or better yet, take them off the menu).

BIN THE MOULDY BREAD

We’re all guilty of cutting off the mouldy bits and getting on with our loaf of bread, but some bread moulds can be seriously deadly and cutting off the mouldy bits doesn’t eliminate the risk. Mycotoxins, which are toxic substances produced by fungi, can produce some very nasty symptoms (e.g. diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting) and some of them have even been linked to long-term health issues like cancer and immune deficiencies.

In all likelihood, you won’t die from eating a bit of mouldy bread, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s also important to keep in mind that some people are highly sensitive to mould and they may have a much more serious reaction than you would yourself.

If you work in a food business, it’s best you don’t take risks with your customers’ health. Bin the mouldy bread and serve a safe slice.

WASH FRUITS AND VEGETABLES IN COLD RUNNING WATER

Fresh fruit and vegetables are excellent sources of essential vitamins and nutrients, but they can also be a source of harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli. The most likely culprits? Leafy greens.

According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leafy greens, such as spinach and cabbage, are responsible for the majority of food-borne illnesses contracted from produce. That said, any unwashed fruit or vegetable can carry an unhealthy dose of pathogenic bacteria (or the dreaded Norovirus).

If it grows on or in the ground, it must be washed carefully and thoroughly in cold running water to remove bacteria and pesticides, so don’t rush the rinse!

RE-WASH PRE-WASHED FRUITS AND VEGETABLES (OR DON'T USE THEM)

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 can harbour Listeria, a food-borne bacteria that can make some people very sick, and can have devastating consequences for expecting mothers — including miscarriage, stillbirth, uterine infection and preterm delivery.

According to the CDC, 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.

TRAIN YOUR FOOD HANDLERS

There is no substitute for skilled and knowledgeable Food Handlers when it comes to protecting the public from food safety risks like food poisoning. To ensure food safety in your food business, you must train your staff in safe food handling practices. The easiest way to do so is through a food handlers course online, and through ongoing education and training resources (e.g. posters, guides, fact sheets, checklists).

You should also nominate a Food Safety Supervisor to take responsibility for the health risks in your business — in NSW, VIC, QLD and ACT, you are required to do so by law. It’s easy: simply nominate your Food Safety Supervisor and enrol them in a Food Safety Supervisor online course. With an online course, your nominated employee won’t have to travel to a classroom or take time off work.

The Australian Institute of Food Safety’s nationally recognised Food Safety Supervisor online course is 100% online and includes the online proctored exam and two years of AIFS Membership, which gives all AIFS students access to additional learning tools and training resources. Learn more about the AIFS Food Safety Supervisor online course.