Department of Health

Key messages

  • Food poisoning is a serious illness that can cause death.
  • People can get food poisoning if they consume food or drink that has been contaminated by bacteria.
  • Bacteria can be found naturally on foods, or they can contaminate food during preparation or storage.
  • Certain foods are high risk, meaning they are more likely to cause food poisoning.

Food poisoning is a serious health problem. It can cause severe illness and even death. Food poisoning is frequently caused by bacteria from food that has been poorly handled, stored or cooked.

Vulnerable people are more likely to become very sick or die from food poisoning. Vulnerable people include young children, pregnant women, older people and people with other illnesses.

Food poisoning – even a single case – can seriously damage the reputation of a business and of the food industry, and ruin the jobs of many workers.

Victoria’s food businesses are a crucial part of the state economy. Therefore, anyone who handles food – including kitchen hands, food process workers, shop assistants or floor staff – has an important responsibility to handle food safely.

Bacteria contamination in food

Bacteria are everywhere – in the soil, on animals, on people (even on healthy people), and on the things people touch and use – but most of the time they are harmless.

Bacteria that cause food poisoning can be naturally present on some foods, such as meat and vegetables, but this does not usually cause illness. However, under certain conditions, bacteria can multiply quickly. It is therefore very important not to let food sit at dangerous conditions for extended times.It is also possible for food to become contaminated during the later stages of the food preparation and storage process.

Contamination during food preparation

Bacteria from raw food can contaminate hands and equipment (such as knives, cutting boards and benches). It is important to wash hands and kitchen equipment properly to reduce the chances of food becoming contaminated with bacteria.

Contamination during food storage

Bacteria from raw food can contaminate ready-to-eat or cooked foods if they come into contact with each other during storage. This includes contact between raw food juices, and cooked or ready-to-eat foods.

High-risk food

Bacteria grow and multiply on some types of food more easily than on others. High-risk foods include:

  • meat
  • poultry
  • dairy products
  • eggs
  • smallgoods
  • seafood
  • cooked rice
  • cooked pasta
  • prepared salads, including coleslaws, pasta salads and fruit salads.

The food poisoning chain

Food poisoning occurs through three steps:

  1. There must be bacteria on the food.
  2. The bacteria must have the right conditions to grow – that is, warmth (temperature of between 5 °C and 60 °C – the temperature danger zone), moisture and a food source.
  3. The bacteria must have time to grow and multiply.

Food poisoning can be prevented if any one of these steps is broken.

Food poisoning symptoms

Food poisoning symptoms can include nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, fever and headaches. Symptoms can occur within 30 minutes of eating spoilt food, or several hours or days later. They can be mild or severe.

Some bacteria can also cause other food poisoning symptoms. For example, Listeria may cause miscarriage in pregnant women, or other serious illness in vulnerable people.

Food poisoning translated resources

Reviewed 13 March 2024


Contact details

Food Safety Unit

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