Food Safety and Hygiene

The Difference Between High-Risk and Low-Risk Foods

Ricky Kambray
Ricky Kambray

In the dynamic environment of various food establishments, knowing about “high-risk and low-risk foods” is super important. It means being really committed to keeping our food safe. But what makes them different?

Well, high-risk foods are like perfect homes for bacteria to grow, while low-risk ones aren’t. Usually, low-risk foods are thought to be safe, but it’s crucial to understand that any food can cause health risks if it has become contaminated at any point in the food supply chain.

Let’s keep going to find out more about the difference between these high and low-risk foods and how to handle them safely.

Woman standing in front of different food items placed on the table

What are High-Risk Foods?

High-risk foods are ready-to-eat foods that can easily help harmful bacteria grow. They don’t need any further heat treatment or cooking. These foods are often linked to causing food poisoning. In the UK, there are over 2.4 million cases of food poisoning each year.

High-risk foods are usually described as moist, having a lot of protein or starch, and a natural pH (meaning they are not very acidic or only a little bit acidic). Plus, they need careful temperature control and must be kept safe from germs.

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Here are some examples of high-risk foods:

  • Cooked meat and poultry like beef, pork, ham, lamb, chicken, turkey, and duck.
  • Cooked meat products like meat pies, pastries, pate, meat stock, gravy, and cook-chill meals.
  • Dairy products like milk, cream, artificial cream, custards, products with unpasteurised milk, and certain types of cheeses.
  • Egg products such as cooked eggs, quiche, and products with uncooked or lightly cooked eggs, like mayonnaise, mousse, and homemade ice cream.
  • Shellfish and other seafood like mussels, cockles, cooked prawns, and raw oysters.
    Dishes with grains like cooked rice, pasta, and couscous.

Man with an eating disorder experiencing stomach discomfort while holding a bowl of fried chips

Why Might High-Risk Foods Cause Food Poisoning?

High-risk foods can cause food poisoning because bacteria love two things: food and moisture. They especially like food high in protein, like cooked meat and dairy products. These high-risk foods support the growth of bacteria as they do not go through another process (i.e., cooking, which would destroy the bacteria) before they are eaten. This makes them more likely to cause food poisoning.

Here are some common types of food poisoning:


Usually caused by contamination and undercooking.
Around 2,500 people in the UK end up in the hospital each year because of this.

  • The most common cause of food poisoning in the UK.
  • Often happens when poultry isn’t cooked enough.
Escherichia coli (E.coli) 0157:
  • Can be very harmful, especially to the elderly and young children.
  • Cooking meats thoroughly can prevent this.
  • Found in raw milk and processed meats.
  • Listeriosis is risky because it can survive in cold temperatures, even in the fridge. Only thorough cooking can get rid of it.
Clostridium Perfringens:
  • Causes almost a million food illnesses each year.
  • Often comes from large amounts of food warmed for a long time before serving, often in places serving many people at once, like companies or institutions.

Man displaying a variety of healthy and unhealthy food items

What are Low-Risk Foods?

Low-risk foods are ones that don’t give bacteria a good place to grow. Usually, these foods have lots of acid or sugar, and they can also be foods with salt, dry foods, or things that come in cans or vacuum packs.

Plus, low-risk foods, like bread, biscuits, cereals, crisps, and cakes (not cream cakes), are stable at room temperature. These foods are unlikely to cause food poisoning.

Some low-risk food examples include:

  • Preserved foods, like smoked or salted fish.
  • Dry goods with minimal moisture, such as bread, flour, and biscuits.
  • Acidic foods, like pickled foods, vinegar, and fruit.
  • Fermented products, such as salami and pepperoni.
  • Foods with high sugar or fat content, like jam and chocolate.
  • Unopened canned food.

Low-risk foods are usually seen as “safer” than high-risk ones, but it doesn’t mean they can’t get contaminated. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that in 2017, 25% of sickness outbreaks from food were actually connected to low-risk foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.

Have you ever gone into a restaurant, seen the hygiene rating at the door, and wondered what it meant? Learn about food hygiene ratings from our informative blog.

Close-up of healthy food vs unhealthy food

The Difference Between High-Risk and Low-Risk Foods

Here is a table that summarises the key differences between high and low-risk foods:

AspectHigh-Risk FoodsLow-Risk Foods
CharacteristicsMoistStable, not moist
IngredientsHigh in protein or starchMay have less protein or starch
Acidity LevelNatural pH (low to medium acidity)High in acidity or has a natural low to medium pH
PerceptionGenerally seen as riskierGenerally perceived as safer
Contamination RiskCan pose a higher risk of food contaminationStill poses a risk of contamination, though lower
ExamplesCooked meat, dairy products, some dessertsBread, canned goods, some fruits and vegetables

Understanding these differences is important for safely handling and storing various types of foods.

Besides, check out our insightful blog for a detailed look at food storage temperature, the danger zone you should be careful about, and some useful tips to make sure your food stays tasty and safe.

Can a Low-Risk Food Become a High-Risk Food?

Yes, it’s simple – a low-risk food can turn into a high-risk food if not handled the right way. For instance, if you’re dealing with fresh fruits and veggies and forget to wash them well, harmful bacteria and viruses might stick around. Even whole fruits and veggies, if you cut them, can switch from low to high risk food. Also, dry rice that’s uncooked is low risk, but once you add water to cook it, it becomes high risk.

White notepad with the words food safety and a stethoscope

Ways to Handle High-Risk and Low-Risk Foods Safely

Whether you’re dealing with high-risk or low-risk foods in your kitchen, it’s crucial, as a food handler, to do everything you can to keep the food safe.

Follow simple food safety tips when preparing food:

  • Clean Hands: Wash your hands before and after handling food. Utilise soap and water, and scrub for at least 20 seconds.
  • Equipment and Surfaces: Clean and sanitise cutting boards, utensils, countertops, and kitchen tools regularly to avoid spreading germs.
  • Proper Storage: Store perishable, high-risk foods, like meat, dairy, and leftovers, in the fridge. Storing food safely slows down the growth of harmful bacteria. Also, store raw meats separately. Plus, keep dry goods off the floor in the pantry.
  • Separate Raw and Cooked Foods: Utilise different cutting boards and utensils for raw items and cooked foods to prevent germs from spreading.
  • Cook Thoroughly: Make sure food is cooked enough to kill harmful bacteria. Use a food thermometer to check.
  • Avoid Cross-Contamination: Don’t use the same plates or tools for raw and cooked foods. Be careful with juices from raw meat, poultry, or seafood.
  • Safe Defrosting: Defrost frozen food in the fridge, under cold running water, or in the microwave. Don’t thaw at room temperature.
  • Monitor Refrigerator Temperature: Keep your fridge at or below 40°F (4°C) to slow down the growth of bacteria.
  • Check Expiry Dates: Regularly check the dates on your food. Throw away anything past its expiration date.
  • Pest Control: Get rid of pests and take steps to prevent them.
  • Training: Make sure you and anyone in your supply chain who works with food complete training on Food Hygiene and Safety, like Food Safety and Handling and Food Safety at Work training.
  • Stay Informed: Keep up with food safety principles or guidelines or join food safety programs to make sure you’re following the latest recommendations.

Wrapping Up

To sum it up, it’s really important to know the difference between high-risk and low-risk foods for a safe and healthy dining experience. The key is how these foods deal with bacteria and the risks they might bring. Although low-risk foods are usually safer, it’s super important to handle both kinds correctly.

Following food safety rules like washing hands well, storing food properly, and cooking carefully helps us deal with high and low-risk foods confidently. Whether you’re cooking a delicious steak or cutting up fresh veggies, keeping an eye on food safety makes sure our experiences with both kinds of foods are safe and enjoyable.


What is the difference between low and high-risk foods?

High-risk foods provide a comfy home for bacteria to grow and multiply, while low-risk foods make it tough for bacteria to thrive.

What are the things you should remember while eating high-risk food?

When consuming high-risk foods, especially moist meats, it’s crucial to prioritise thorough cooking to eliminate bacteria. Additionally, strict adherence to hygiene practices, such as handwashing and preventing cross-contamination, becomes paramount to ensure a safe dining experience and minimise the risk of foodborne illnesses.

Is Rice a high-risk food?

No, rice is not a high-risk food. Dry, uncooked rice is considered a low-risk food. However, cooked rice can become a high-risk food if it is not stored properly.

What is a high-risk group in food safety?

Some people are at higher risk of getting really sick from food. This includes those with weak immune systems, older adults, and pregnant women. We must be extra careful when preparing food for them to avoid severe consequences.

What is high-risk potential food?

High-risk potential foods are those that can easily support the growth of harmful bacteria, potentially leading to foodborne illnesses. Examples include raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy products.

Can hazardous foods be made safer?

Yes, by cooking right, staying clean, and storing food properly, we can make risky foods much safer and decrease the chances of getting sick.

What is a food handler license?

A food handler license is like a certificate that shows someone finished training on how to handle food safely.

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Ricky Kambray

Hey this is Ricky Kambray an award-winning first-aid trainer with over 20 years of healthcare and teaching expertise. Highly certified general nurse regularly appears in the press discussing accident prevention and first aid advice.