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Can plant-based foods cause food poisoning?

June 13th , 2022 by

We often think of undercooked meat, poultry, seafood and eggs as the culprits of food-borne illness – which they can be – but those eating plant-based diets are not immune to the harmful bacteria that can wage war on our bodies.

Plant-based diets are not a fad – they are here to stay, with more and more people making this popular lifestyle choice for health, ethical and/or environmental reasons.

And let’s not forget those opting to decrease their reliance on meat and dairy rather than make a wholesale change in favour of plant-based foods.

So, what kinds of plant-based foods pose a food safety risk? Any food – animal or plant-based – poses a risk through cross-contamination, e.g., unwashed hands, sneezing or coughing on foods, and contact with pathogens from other food.

But some plant-based foods are more susceptible to harbouring certain bacteria and should form part of your food safety management system. We’ve provided a selection of these below.

Raw sprouts

Uncooked and lightly cooked sprouts have been linked to multiple bacteria outbreaks across the world, particularly salmonella and E. coli. All types of sprouts – including alfalfa, mung bean, clover, and radish sprouts – can spread infection, which is caused by bacterial contamination of their seeds. If you would prefer not to cook them, take them off the menu.

Raw sprouts

Serve sprouts cooked, not raw


Tofu is a popular meat substitute and a staple of the vegan diet. Like any other fresh food, tofu has a limited shelf-life and can go bad. It is not recommended to serve tofu raw or cold – even if it has been pre-cooked. Always heat tofu to a safe temperature all the way through.

Tofu may also be exposed to pathogens if stored in contaminated water. The risk is greater if sold in bulk — stored in a large bin of water — as unwashed hands or unclean water, for example, can infect the entire batch. So if you purchase tofu in bulk, choose reputable sources and ask how often a new batch is made and the water is changed.


Uncooked rice can contain spores of Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning. Bacillus cereus originates in the soil and can be transferred to foods grown close to the ground such as rice, legumes, cereals, spices, etc.

The spores can survive when rice is cooked. If rice is left standing at room temperature, these spores can grow into bacteria. These bacteria will multiply and may produce toxins that cause vomiting or diarrhoea.

Rice can be reheated if it was cooled and refrigerated promptly (ideally within 1 hour). It must be reheated properly and should never be reheated more than once.

Bowl of steaming rice

Cool and refrigerate rice promptly

Uncooked flour

Eggs aren’t the only reason you shouldn’t eat raw cake batter or dough – raw flour can also harbour E. coli bacteria which can contaminate grain while it’s still in the field or at other steps during flour production. Even not washing hands after them coming into contact with uncooked flour can spread E. coli.

Fresh fruit and vegetables

Any fresh fruit or vegetable can harbour Salmonella, E. coli or the Norovirus. The most likely culprits are leafy greens such as spinach and cabbage and melon/canteloupe. Wash all fruit and vegetables thoroughly in cold running water to remove bacteria and pesticides. Don’t rush the rinse!

Washing leafy greens

Thoroughly wash fruit and vegetables

Prewashed or precut fruits and vegetables

The more a food is handled and processed, the more likely it is to be tainted by harmful bacteria. Pre-washed or pre-cut fruits and vegetables are no exception. They are prone to harbouring Listeria and should always be rewashed before using.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. For more information, seek professional food safety advice or training.

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