Food safety for plant-based proteins

Can a plant taste like chicken? With the current trend in plant-based protein for meat substitutions, it has become a reality — but it still requires safe food handling.

Someone taking the temperature of a plant-based burger.
Photo: Mary Donaldson/MSU Extension.

Consumers may select plant-based protein as a meat substitute for many reasons, such as diet choices, health needs, ethical concerns for animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. The largest driver for plant-based protein meat substitutions is the increase in protein consumption worldwide. While consumers support this trend, we also need to be aware of the potential food safety risks.

Sources of plant-based protein

Where do these plant-based protein meat substitutes come from? Today, many plants that humans use as food are the source of plant-based protein for meat substitutions, such as cereals (wheat), pseudo-cereals (quinoa), legumes (soybeans), oilseeds (sesame) and other plants (rice). Many people may not realize that two kinds of non-meat proteins have been used for centuries. The first is tofu, made from soy, and the second is seitan, made from wheat gluten.

Food scientists continue researching plant material that can be used to mimic meat. By manipulating the building blocks of plant material, the organoleptic properties are improved. Organoleptic refers to the sensory factors of food, such as flavor, smell, textur, and appearance. Engineering the right mouthfeel that one expects from eating a ground beef hamburger is a remarkable achievement.

Risks and hazards

Yet, as scientists create these innovations, there is little research on the potential food safety hazards of plant-based meat substitutes. Foodborne illness outbreaks may be commonly linked to meat, poultry, eggs and seafood, but foodborne illnesses are also a risk with plant-based food products. The potential for biological, chemical and physical contamination associated with plant-based foods is different than the common hazards of fish, meat, poultry and eggs.

One possible hazard is physical contaminants, particularly foreign objects from the field (such as stones) or during processing (such as metal shavings or rubber from machinery). Chemical contaminants such as pesticides used to control insects and fungi, can contaminate raw plant material. Heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury are naturally occurring in soil and can also be a potential contaminant.


Eating a plant-based protein meat alternative can be a very serious threat to people with certain allergies. A person’s immune system may mistake certain types of proteins as a threat, causing an allergic reaction. In the U.S., soy, wheat and sesame must be declared on food labels to warn consumers about allergens. Although less common, many other cereals, grains and seeds can also cause an allergic reaction.

Biological contaminants

Because vegetables or grain crops are exposed to the soil, air and even wildlife, it is easy to understand that the potential for biological contaminants. Yet consumer handling of plant-based protein used as meat substitutes is a greater concern. Bacteria, viruses, molds and yeasts can contaminate raw food products. Given the right environment, the growth of pathogenic bacteria can cause foodborne illnesses. Safe food handling practices are needed to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Handling food safely

Research shows that consumers know that meat is raw and can be a hazard if not properly handled. But consumers often don't consider that food from plants can also pose a risk of foodborne illnesses if it is not properly handled. Although many of the hazards for meat and plant-based protein meat substitutes are different, handling them properly is the same. MSU Extension recommends following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Four Steps to Food Safety:

  • Clean. Before preparing raw meat substitutes from plant-based protein, wash hands well.
  • Cross-contamination. Keep raw poultry, meat, and eggs separate from ready-to-eat food.
  • Cook. Cook food to the correct internal cooking temperatures. Raw food, including plant-based protein meat substitutes, requires cooking to make it safe. Cooked to the correct internal temperature as listed with the plant-based protein meat substitute label instructions. Under-cooking food is a significant hazard. Use a food thermometer every time to make sure the food has been cooked to the correct internal temperature. Using a food thermometer also helps to prevent overcooking.
  • Chill. Just as with meat, poultry and eggs, plant-based protein meat substitutes need to be stored at refrigeration temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or freezer temperatures of 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria have limited growth in food that has proper refrigeration storage. Never store or thaw at room temperature.

Handling food safely is a must, regardless of your choice to eat meat or meat substitutes from plant-based protein sources. Always follow good handling practices to lower the risk of foodborne illness. There is no reason to bellyache over a foodborne illness.

For more food safety news, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website or sign up for our quarterly news digest to get food safety and food preservation information right to your inbox.

Did you find this article useful?