Food supply contamination

Impact 5
risk indicator
Impact & Likelihood
Impact key
5 Catastrophic
4 Significant
3 Moderate
2 Limited
1 Minor
Likelihood key
5 >25%
4 5-25%
3 1-5%
2 0.2-1%
1 <0.2%


The contamination of food products with pathogens such as Norovirus, Salmonella, Listeria or Escherichia Coli (E. coli) represents a significant threat to public health. Contamination may result from cross-contamination, poor hygiene, inappropriate storage or contamination with animal waste. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates that food borne pathogens are responsible for 2.4 million cases of disease in the UK each year, at a cost of £9.1 billion. The FSA prioritises keeping the level of foodborne disease low through inspecting, auditing, and assuring businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland producing meat, wine and dairy, and through surveillance and preventative programmes.


The reasonable worst-case scenario is based on an incident involving a pathogen in the food chain resulting in illness, hospitalisation and possible fatalities in a moderate to large number of people. There could be direct consumer health effects, however the public health impact of food incidents can vary widely. Additionally, the impacts of infection could be more severe in vulnerable groups such as young children, older adults and the immunocompromised. There could be food production/ marketing implications, depending on the scale and sector affected
(for example major shellfisheries, dairy, livestock production areas). Consumer confidence might also be affected, leading to lost markets and, where staple products are affected, adaptive purchasing behaviours.

Key assumptions

It is assumed for the purposes of this reasonable worst-case scenario that the type and source of contamination would not be identified immediately, and the traceability of the contaminated product would be complex and time consuming. The type of food in this scenario is a widely consumed product or an ingredient in a range of different products.


This type of pathogen could be present in other products at different severities. A different pathogen may also be present in similar products.

Response capability requirements

Response capabilities to effectively manage such a scenario would include close liaison between the FSA and public health agencies, possible decontamination services to clear up the site of the incident and mitigation of the risk of widespread loss of consumer confidence in food.


Events such as these can potentially cause chronic health effects and demands on health care for a prolonged period following the incident. Psychological support will need to be made available to affected individuals.