The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service defines the Temperature Danger Zone as the range of temperatures between 40°F and 140°F. This temperature range creates an environment where dangerous bacteria can rapidly grow – sometimes doubling in number in just 20 minutes. There is one simple, essential rule: keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
While any food could potentially host dangerous pathogens, foods we typically think of as “perishables” tend to grow contaminants at a much more prolific rate. In the realm of safe food handling practices these are known as TCS Foods, or foods that need time and temperature control for safety. There are six factors that affect bacterial growth in food: time, temperature, moisture, acidity, nutrients, and oxygen – and TCS Foods are most likely to be affected by all six factors (SmartSense).
The list of these foods includes milk and dairy products, eggs, meat (beef, pork, and lamb), poultry, fish, shellfish and crustaceans, baked potatoes, tofu or other soy protein, sprouts and sprout seeds, sliced melons, cut tomatoes, cut leafy greens, untreated garlic-and-oil mixtures, and cooked rice, beans, and vegetables (Gordon Food Service).
Time and Temperature Control Cheat Sheet:
- Never leave food out of refrigeration for more than two hours.
- Keep hot food hot (at or above 140 °F) with chafing dishes, steam tables, slow cookers, etc. – especially if you aren’t serving it right away
- When reheating foods, they should always be reheated thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165°F. Make sure foods are covered and rotated so they heat evenly.
- Keep cold food cold (at or below 40 °F) by placing food in containers in coolers filled with ice or packed with ice packs.
- The improper cooling of cooked foods is the most common cause of foodborne illness. TCS Foods must pass through the Temperature Danger Zone as fast as possible – two hours or less – to prevent this.
- Always reduce the size of a dish to efficiently begin the cooling process. Ice-water baths, Ice paddles, Blast or tumble chillers, and using cold water as an ingredient are all safe and effective methods to cool foods.
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