Food safety: these are the 7 foods most at risk of contamination, according to FAO and WHO (no, there’s no chicken)

In their report, FAO and WHO classified cereals as foods of greatest concern in terms of microbiological food safety.

Cereals are at the top of the microbiological food safety risk ladder. This aspect is underlined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), which emphasized in their report that these foods are exposed to a greater risk of contamination than others.

Low moisture foods (LMF) typically have a long shelf life and are considered microbiologically safe for many years. However, in recent years, a number of outbreaks related to these foods have shown that although microorganisms cannot develop in these products, if they are contaminated in some way, they can persist for a long time.

Even small contaminations present in these foods can lead to the development of diseases, and high temperatures can promote the growth of microorganisms.

Seven categories of LMF foods are included in the FAO and WHO report, “Evaluation of low-moisture foods to support microbiological risk management”:

  1. cereals
  2. jams and snacks
  3. dried fruits and vegetables
  4. dried protein products
  5. nuts and nut products
  6. seeds for food use
  7. dried spices and herbs (including tea)

Each category was assessed based on production, consumption and international trade, but also based on the burden of disease that may develop.

The review included nine microbial risks, specifically for:

  • Bacillus cereus
  • Clostridium botulinum
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • Cronobacter, E. coli (including generic and pathogenic strains)
  • Salmonella
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Enterobacteriaceae
bacteria cereal table


Salmonella was the most common microbial risk associated with outbreaks, while risks from Bacillus cereus were mainly associated with smaller incidents involving rice and other cereal products. Staphylococcus aureus, on the other hand, has caused several very large outbreaks due to contaminated milk powder.

Based on an analysis of data covering the period 2014 to 2016, cereals are at the top in terms of microbiological risk, followed by dried protein products and then spices, dried herbs and tea.

FAO cereal risk table


In fourth place we find nuts and nut-based products, followed by sweets and snacks, dried fruits and vegetables and seeds.

Experts said it is important to prevent contamination of low-moisture foods during harvest, post-harvest and processing through good agricultural and manufacturing practices and HACCP food safety management systems.

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Source: FAO

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