Even if you don’t know much about cooking, you’re probably familiar with at least two food safety rules: washing your hands and using different cutting boards for meat and vegetables to prevent cross-contamination. After all, raw meat and poultry are two of the most well-known foods that can lead to foodborne illness.
Can vegans get food poisoning? We don’t consume animal-based foods as vegans, so is there still a risk?
As a registered dietitian, I’ll discuss how food poisoning occurs, which vegan foods are more likely to contain harmful microorganisms, and food safety tips for avoiding foodborne illnesses.
Can vegans get food poisoning?
Yes, vegans can still get food poisoning since meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal-based foods aren’t the only foods with the ability to harbor dangerous bacteria and viruses. Plant-based foods contaminated with these microorganisms have the potential to cause foodborne illnesses as well.
Are vegans less likely to get food poisoning?
It isn’t clear whether vegans are less likely to get food poisoning. Vegans do avoid meat, dairy, and eggs, foods we often think of as being the most frequently contaminated foods. However, avoiding animal foods doesn’t completely eliminate the risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1, fresh fruits and vegetables contribute to 50% of all food poisoning cases. Vegans end up eating more plant-based foods in place of animal-based foods, so switching to a vegan diet won’t automatically lower your risk of food poisoning.
It can, however, reduce the severity of food poisoning symptoms and lower your risk of dying from food poisoning. When looking at the proportion of total deaths related to foodborne illnesses, the CDC found that:
- 29% of deaths were related to meat and poultry
- 23% of deaths were related to produce
- 15% of deaths were related to dairy and eggs
- 6% of deaths were related to fish and shellfish
- 2% of deaths were related to other commodities
- The remaining 25% of deaths were related to other viruses like Toxoplasma gondii, which can be transmitted to humans by eating undercooked meat, or Vibrio vulnificus
From these results, we can reasonably conclude that more than 50% of all foodborne-related deaths are related to animal-based foods.
How does food poisoning happen?
Food poisoning occurs after consuming food that has been contaminated with harmful microorganisms. These are usually bacteria or viruses. Food may be contaminated when:
- Rinsed or cooked in contaminated water
- Prepared by sick food handlers
- Prepared by food handlers who haven’t washed their hands after using the restroom
- Cross-contaminated with bacteria from other foods (such as when produce is prepared on the same cutting board as raw poultry)
- Bacteria from soil stick to the surface of plant-based foods
- Foods aren’t cooled, stored, or reheated properly
Higher-risk vegan foods
So which plant-based foods are most likely to make you spend the night on the bathroom floor? Let’s discuss them below:
1. Cooked grains
Many people wouldn’t expect this, but rice is one of the riskiest foods for food poisoning. Grains like rice and quinoa are high in moisture2 once cooked and offer lots of surface area for bacteria to make themselves at home.
Uncooked rice is also risky since it harbors Bacillus cereus, a type of bacteria that prefers grain-based foods. B. cereus can survive high temperatures, meaning that the cooking process won’t destroy it.
2. Baked potatoes
Another high-risk food is potatoes that have been wrapped in aluminum foil, baked, and left to cool without being unwrapped. Aluminum foil traps heat, making it take much longer for the potatoes to cool to room temperature.
If placed in the refrigerator to cool while still warm and wrapped in foil, the risk of a foodborne illness increases even more. It will simply take too long for the potatoes to cool down, allowing bacteria that love warm environments to thrive.
3. Raw leafy greens
Health-conscious vegans tend to eat a lot of raw leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and lettuce. These nutrient-dense vegetables are easily contaminated with bacteria like E. Coli, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes.
Bagged lettuce seems riskier, but these greens are almost always washed prior to bagging to remove any harmful germs. The CDC advises that you don’t have to re-wash bagged greens3 that have the following labels:
- Ready to eat
- Triple washed
- No washing necessary
Of course, if your bagged greens haven’t been pre-washed, be sure to give them a good rinse in plenty of cool water.
4. Raw sprouts
Another beloved food of health-conscious vegans, sprouts are a popular topping for sandwiches and salads thanks to their high bioavailability of many nutrients. Alfalfa, broccoli, and sunflower sprouts are just a few popular options.
Unfortunately, the moist, warm environment best for growing sprouts is also extremely effective for growing bacteria. Because of this, it’s best to either avoid raw sprouts altogether or to cook your sprouts before eating them.
5. Unrinsed melons
Cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon can all carry harmful bacteria on their rinds. Cantaloupe and honeydew are particularly risky since they have tons of tiny dents in their rinds, offering the perfect places for bacteria to collect.
It’s best to rinse melons in plenty of cold water so that no bacteria is transferred into the flesh of the fruit when you cut into them with a knife.
6. Unpasteurized juice
Fresh fruit and vegetable juices are a popular way to boost your vitamin and mineral intake. Since these juices are made fresh and rarely pasteurized, there is a risk of bacterial contamination if the fruits and vegetables used aren’t rinsed well enough.
7. Dented canned items
Most people know that you shouldn’t consume anything in a dented can since this can be a sign of botulism caused by Clostridium botulinum. Canned foods that haven’t been processed properly can contain dangerous toxins produced by C. botulinum.
Canned vegetables with low acidity such as green beans, corn, and peas are most at risk of botulism4, but canned beans, lentils, fruit, and soups can also be contaminated. If you see a can that has been dented, the safest thing is to avoid eating its contents.
8. Raw flour
Raw eggs aren’t the only risky ingredient in raw cookie dough — disappointingly, raw flour can also contain E. Coli or Salmonella, making vegan cookie dough also unsafe to consume. Raw flour isn’t pasteurized, so it can still contain germs present in wheat fields.
How to reduce the risk of food poisoning
Cool cooked foods properly
To minimize the growth of bacteria, cooked foods should be cooled to room temperature within 2 hours after you turn off the heat. They should then be placed in the refrigerator or freezer immediately and stored below 40°F.
For reference, the “danger zone” for bacterial growth is between 40°F to 140°F. To prevent as much bacterial growth as possible, foods should be kept below 40°F or above 140°F.
To help foods cool more quickly, you can transfer them from a hot skillet or pot to wide-bottomed food storage containers. You can also use a cooling paddle which can be frozen or filled with ice to quickly lower the temperature of liquid foods like soups and stews.
Reheat leftovers properly
Leftovers should be heated to 165°F to kill the majority of any bacteria that grew while the leftovers were in the refrigerator. It’s best to finish your leftovers within 3-5 days, or as soon as possible for foods like cooked rice and other grains.
- Can You Reheat Lentils? How to Do So Safely
- Can You Reheat Quorn? Considerations for Food Safety
- Can You Reheat Tofu?
Wash hands before handling food
Bacteria on your own hands can make you sick as well, so be sure to wash your hands with warm soapy water prior to handling food.
Wash produce well
The Center for Food Safety5 recommends washing produce very well in plenty of cold running water. You can use a vinegar-water solution (3 parts water to 1 part vinegar) to soak produce as well, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.
Interestingly, the FDA6 recommends avoiding the use of commercial fruit-and-vegetable washes since the residues present in these products haven’t been tested for safety. They also haven’t been shown to work any better than cool water.
Soap, detergents, and bleach should never be used to wash produce since these products can be absorbed by porous fruits and vegetables.
Avoid eating food left out overnight
It’s painful to waste food, but eating leftovers that have been left out at room temperature all day or overnight isn’t worth the risk of stomach cramps, nausea, or diarrhea that may result. Leftovers should be put away within 2 hours, or 1 hour if left out in warm weather.
In summary, vegans are still at risk of getting food poisoning since many plant-based foods can contain harmful microorganisms. Food poisoning caused by contaminated animal-based foods tends to be more severe, however, so vegans may be at lower risk of dying from foodborne illnesses.
Vegans should follow food safety guidelines such as:
- Washing fresh produce thoroughly
- Cooling cooked foods to room temperature within 2 hours and storing them in the fridge below 40°F
- Heating leftovers to at least 165°F
- Avoiding canned foods that have been dented
If you found this article helpful, you may be interested in other misconceptions about vegan diets. If so, check out my article Do Vegans Age Faster?
Can vegans get food poisoning? – FAQs
What are the symptoms of food poisoning in vegans?
The symptoms of food poisoning will vary based on the microorganism causing the illness. Vegans are most likely to get food poisoning from B. cereus in grains, E. Coli on fresh produce, and C. botulinum in canned goods.
Symptoms caused by these microorganisms can include:
- Diarrhea (bloody or non-bloody)
- Abdominal pain
- Hemolytic uremic syndrome (a form of kidney failure that may occur in older adults or young children)
Can you get ill from undercooked vegan food?
Yes, some vegan foods can cause food poisoning if undercooked or raw. Raw flour is an example, as are undercooked red kidney beans. There’s also a risk of food poisoning from eating leftovers that haven’t been reheated to at least 165°F.
Why can’t Beyond Meat be eaten raw?
Beyond Meat is made from raw vegetable proteins, which pose a risk for lectin poisoning that arises from eating raw or undercooked beans. Fortunately, cooking vegetable proteins thoroughly deactivates lectins and eliminates the risk of food poisoning.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Attribution of Foodborne Illness: Findings. CDC website. Accessed 11/28/23.
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Water Activity (aw) in Foods. FDA website. Accessed 11/28/23.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lettuce, Other Leafy Greens, and Food Safety. CDC website. Accessed 11/28/23.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. What is the danger of botulism in canned goods? USDA website. Accessed 11/28/23.
- Center for Food Safety. The Truth About Produce Wash. Center for Food Safety website. Accessed 11/28/23.
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Food Facts: Raw Produce. Selecting and Serving it Safely. Accessed 11/28/23.