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Common food safety terms

Last updated: 22 December 2020

We have put together a list of common food safety terms and what they mean.


Something that shouldn't be in food and can make the food unsafe to eat. Examples are harmful chemicals, physical objects (e.g. glass, metal fragments) and microorganisms (‘germs’, bacteria, viruses, parasites – see definition below).

Cross contamination

When harmful microorganisms or chemicals spread between food, surfaces, hands or equipment. For example, if a cutting board used to prepare raw chicken is then used to prepare salad vegetables, microorganisms from the chicken juice on the board will spread to the salad. Because the salad won’t be cooked, the microorganisms will not be killed before it is eaten.

Environmental sample

A small amount of soil, water, food or other material taken (e.g. from a restaurant, factory or farm) to test in a lab to see if it contains harmful microorganisms.

Epidemiological ('epi') investigation

When health experts and scientists look into what is making groups of people sick. It usually involves talking with sick people and taking lab samples (to look at their blood and/or faeces) to work out whether the illness was caused by a particular microorganism.

Faecal–oral route

A common way that foodborne illness can be spread, is when very small amounts of faeces (poo) from people or animals are transferred to people's mouths. This can happen if people do not wash their hands properly after going to the toilet, changing nappies, or touching animals, eggs, soil or manure. If someone preparing food has dirty hands, the food they touch can get microorganisms on it that can then be swallowed by the person who eats that food.

Foodborne illness (food poisoning)

When people get sick from eating food that has microorganisms or other harmful substances in it. A common foodborne illness is gastroenteritis ('gastro').

Food history

What a person has eaten over a defined period of time. When there is an outbreak of foodborne illness, people who are sick and people who are not sick are asked what they ate and when, so investigators can find out if it is linked to a particular food source.

Food recall

The removal of an unsafe food product from the food supply (including shops, cafes, restaurants and wholesalers, etc.).

Microorganisms or microbes

Very small organisms you need a microscope to see, including:

  • bacteria (for example Salmonella and Campylobacter)
  • viruses (for example norovirus and Hepatitis A virus)
  • parasites (for example giardia and tapeworms).

The terms 'germ' or 'pathogen' are often used for a microorganism that can make people sick.

Microbial contamination (of food)

When a food contains microorganisms, or germs have contaminated the food and made it unsafe.


A microorganism that can cause disease.

Serovar or serotype

A specific type of microorganism within a larger family of related ones. Different types can be identified by various lab tests. For example, within the group of Salmonella bacteria there are thousands of different serotypes. If a group of sick people all have the same serotype of microorganism, it is likely they have become sick from the same thing (e.g. a particular food served at the same restaurant or from the same farm). Knowing this information helps in finding what caused the outbreak in the first place.

Source of contamination

Where a harmful substance or microorganism has come from. For example, raw eggs from a particular farm could be a source of Salmonella contamination in a salad dressing made by a restaurant.


A poison made by a living thing (plant, animal or microorganism).


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