Food processing and potentially hazardous foods

Food businesses have a legal responsibility to make sure they, and all their food handlers, have adequate skills and knowledge to process food safely. In particular food handlers must be aware of all high risk or “potentially hazardous foods” (PHFs) in the business and must know how to manage the risks associated with those foods.

If foods aren’t handled appropriately, food poisoning outbreaks can occur. Outbreaks often occur due to food handlers lacking skills or knowledge, usually about high risk foods or high risk processes, where suitable control measures haven’t been put in place. 

What are potentially hazardous foods?

Potentially hazardous foods (PHFs) are foods that must be kept at certain temperatures to minimise the growth of pathogenic microorganisms that may be present in the food or to prevent the formation of toxins in the food.

Generally PHFs are moist, nutrient-rich and have a neutral pH. Examples of foods that are normally considered potentially hazardous include:

  • Raw and cooked meat/poultry and products containing those foods for example chicken, burgers, curries, kebabs, meat pies, mince, pate, sausages, steak, terrine
  • Foods containing eggs (cooked or raw), beans, nuts or other protein-rich foods for example fried ice cream batter, mousse, quiche, raw egg mayonnaise/butter and tofu
  • Dairy products and foods containing dairy products for example cheese, dairy-based desserts, dips, fresh cream or fresh custard filled bakery products, milk
  • Seafood (excluding live seafood) and foods containing seafood for example Fish, oysters, prawns, seafood salad, sashimi
  • Sprouted seeds for example alfalfa and bean sprouts
  • Prepared fruits and vegetables for example cut, diced, grated or sliced fruits/vegetables for example strawberries, carrot, cucumber, lettuce, fruit salad and unpasteurised fresh juices
  • Cooked rice, fresh pasta and cooked pasta
  • Foods that contain any of the above foods as ingredients for example banh mi rolls, Vietnamese cold rolls, gravy, pizza, salads, sandwiches, soups, stews and sushi.

Common control methods for PHFs

When processing food, food businesses have a legal responsibility to protect food from contamination and where process steps are needed to reduce pathogens to safe levels, they must use a step that is reasonably known to achieve the safety of the food.

To protect all food from contamination during processing, safe food handling and hygiene practices must be used. This includes but is not limited to:

  • hygiene practices (hand washing, wearing clean clothing and minimal jewellery, tying back long hair)
  • preventing cross-contamination between raw PHFs and ready-to-eat foods, and contamination by pests, personal items and chemicals
  • minimising the amount of time PHFs are in the temperature danger zone (between 5°C and 60°C)
  • using foods/ingredients within their shelf life
  • using clean, sanitary and well-maintained equipment and preparation surfaces.

In addition to protecting food from contamination, where a process step is known to reduce pathogens to achieve food safety this must be used. For example:

  • Adequate cooking times/temperatures – cooking chicken to at least 75°C in the thickest part
  • Cooling within required timeframes – from 60°C to 21°C in 2 hours, and from 21°C to 5°C in a further 4 hours
  • Acidification – reducing the pH of food to reduce/prevent pathogen growth
  • Packaging – heat sealing, modified atmosphere packaging or vacuum packaging
  • Preservatives –  as permitted by the Food Standards Code.

Many foods such as salads, sandwiches, cold-set deserts and fresh cut fruit will not be subject to a pathogen reduction processing step because they are intended to be eaten raw. For these products it is extremely important that safe food handling and appropriate hygiene practices are followed.

Certain high risk potentially hazardous foods or high risk processes require additional care to make sure they are safe. See the High-risk foods and food processes page for more information.