food-safety | 12 mins read

A Food Serving Temperature Chart for Buffets- Your Ready Reckoner

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Debdutta Bhattacharjee

By Debdutta Bhattacharjee

Why is Food Temperature Important?

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You use the best ingredients sourced from the best producers and suppliers, and employ the best cooks in town to prepare mouth-watering meals. Job done? Not quite. What good is all that effort, if the food goes stale, making it risky to eat?

Managing food temperature, therefore, is one of the most important aspects of controlling disease-causing germs in food. When temperatures are low, bacteria and other pathogens multiply at a slow pace. At mid-range temperatures, their rate of multiplication increases considerably, driving up food safety hazards. Microorganisms, however, cannot withstand high cooking temperatures.

Perishable foods must be kept at suitable cold temperatures to prevent bacterial growth, or cooked to high temperatures to kill hazardous microbes. When preparing poultry, meat, and egg products, particularly, it is critical to use a food thermometer because undercooking can result in pathogens lingering in the food, and causing foodborne diseases when consumed.

An appliance thermometer ensures that the temperature of the refrigerator is kept at 40 Fahrenheit or lower, and the temperature of the freezer is at 0 F or below, on a regular basis.

In this regard, food handlers must always be mindful of the food temperature danger zone. This refers to a range of temperature between 41 F and 135 F in which the pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses thrive and multiply at a rapid rate.

Unsafe food may not show signs of being affected by bacteria or other pathogens. It may taste and smell perfectly normal, giving unsuspecting diners not even a whiff of the risk they pose. This makes maintaining the right food temperatures all the more important.

By using the permitted procedures to heat, refrigerate, and store food, food handlers can be doubly sure that the food does not contain dangerous levels of bacteria that can cause food poisoning.

A food serving temperature chart, therefore, acts as a readily available and extremely useful resource for those preparing and handling food for maintaining safe internal temperatures, thereby ensuring food safety.

Incorrect Food Serving Temperatures and Their Effects on Food Safety

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States is dealing with a massive foodborne illness caseload.

Almost 50 million cases of domestically-acquired foodborne diseases are reported every year in the country. This means one in every six people in America contracts foodborne diseases annually. There are also around 130,000 cases of hospitalization and more than 3,000 cases of mortality.

Around 31 known pathogens, like bacteria, viruses, and parasites, and several unspecified agents have been found to cause these illnesses. Food safety has come to assume even greater importance than before in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Food sitting in the temperature danger zone of 41 F and 135 F will see pathogens doubling every 20 minutes. Moreover, within this temperature danger zone, the range between 70 F and 125 F is particularly risky because it is in this zone that microbial growth peaks. The longer you allow food to stay in the temperature danger zone, the more the chances of it getting laced with pathogens.

Food items not held at temperatures that are food safe, not cooked/reheated to the proper temperature, and not cooled adequately before being put in cold storage will be breeding grounds for pathogens like Salmonella, E.coli, C.perfringens, Norovirus, and Campylobacter. An individual infected by these is likely to suffer from abdominal cramps, fever, severe diarrhea, and vomiting. The effects are pronounced in immunocompromised patients, young children, the elderly, and pregnant women.

Food items that need strict temperature and time control are the most susceptible to being affected by pathogens. Milk and dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry, fish, cooked rice, vegetables, cut tomatoes, plant-based alternatives of meat, garlic and oil mixtures that are untreated are examples of food items that require temperature and time control safety.

According to ServSafe, which is the training and certification program of the US National Restaurant Association, the maximum time that ready-to-eat meals can stay in the temperature danger zone is four hours. After that, the food items should be discarded. Food products can be eaten, reheated, or refrigerated within this time limit of four hours. By checking temperatures every two hours, food handlers will be equipped to take necessary remedial actions.

To ensure food safety, cold-holding equipment should keep food at temperatures of 40 F or lower. Cold food items can be used for a time of up to six hours from when they were taken out from the refrigerator. Cold food should be checked every two hours, and any item that reaches 70 F or higher should be discarded. Similarly, hot food items sitting at temperatures lower than 135 F for over four hours are unsafe for consumption.

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What is a Food Serving Temperature Chart?

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Foodborne diseases can be avoided by following safe handling, storage, and cooking of food. Pathogens that can cause illness cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted.

Before the food is removed from the source of heat, the food has to be cooked to the safe minimum internal temperatures as determined with a food thermometer. Consumers, however, may opt to cook their meals at higher temperatures for personal reasons.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and FoodSafety.Gov provide elaborate temperature charts specifying the internal cooking temperatures and rest periods of various kinds of food products, so thatfood safety can be maintained.

The minimum temperature that kills pathogens varies according to the type of food. The USFDA and the FSIS, for example, suggest that ground meat be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160 F.

In the case of fully cooked ham, both the USFDA and FSIS recommend reheating to a temperature of 140 F, while FSIS adds that ham that has not been packaged in plants inspected by the USDA should be reheated to 165 F.

The Food Serving Temperature Chart Explained

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An elaborate list of different types of food products and their safe minimum internal temperatures can be compiled by a look at the charts prepared by agencies like the USFDA, FSIS, and FoodSafety.gov.

All foodservice businesses should ensure that they cook their meals to the recommended internal temperatures so that temperature danger zones can be avoided, the meals are safe to eat, and consumers do not end up suffering from foodborne illnesses.

Serving food that has been cooked to the proper internal temperature and allowed adequate rest time means that the restaurant's brand image will be boosted, and it will never run afoul of the authorities. Consumer will naturally prefer restaurants that serve safe food.

Here is a consolidated food serving temperature chart-

Food Product Minimum Internal Temperature and Rest Period

Beef, pork, lamb and veal (roasts, steaks, chops)145 F. Allow a rest period of three minutes at the minimum
Ground meat160 F
Ground poultry165 F
Uncooked ham (smoked or fresh)
145 F. Allow a minimum rest period of three minutes
Fully cooked ham Cooked hams that are packaged in plants inspected by the USDA may be reheated to 140 F. All other kinds of cooked ham are to be reheated to 165 F.
Poultry (whole bird, breasts, thighs, legs, ground poultry, wings, stuffing, and giblets)
165 F
EggsThey should be cooked till the white and the yolk turn firm
Fin fish 145 F or cook till the time that the flesh becomes opaque and can be easily separated with a fork
Leftovers165 F
Casseroles165 F
Egg dishes 160 F
Shrimp, crabs, and lobsterThese should be cooked till the flesh turns
opaque and pearly
Oysters, clams, and musselsCook until the shells start to open up
ScallopsCook till the flesh becomes milky white, firm or opaque
Turkey 165 F

How Can Food Temperature be Maintained at a Buffet?

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Buffets offer a lot of benefits for foodservice businesses. For example, they allow businesses to cater to a large number of diners with a small number of servers, and hence, control labor costs. They are particularly attractive to customers, as they offer a wide range of meal options at an affordable price. Going the buffet way can reduce a restaurant's inventory costs as food is consumed in bulk, and there is less wastage.

However, ensuring that food served at buffets is safe is a tricky affair, and there can be no let-up as far as Cooking Temperature is concerned.

The internal temperature of the food should always be monitored with the help of a food thermometer. Hot foods need to be stored at a temperature of 140 F or above. Chafing dishes, warming trays, and slow cookers can be used to serve or to keep the food warm. One has to ensure that the warmer can hold foods at temperatures of 140 F or higher because some warmers can hold food products only at 110-120 F.

Cold meals for backup must be refrigerated and hot meals should be reheated in the oven at 200- 250 F before being served. This will allow guests who arrive late to enjoy their meal without having to worry about the food being unsafe.

Eggs and egg items like souffles or quiches can be stored for later use, but they must be fully heated to 165 F before serving. Cold food items must be stored at temperatures of 40 F or below. Cold meals need to be refrigerated until ready to serve.

Place cold-food-containing platters on ice to keep the food chilled if it has to be left on the table for more than two hours. All perishable food items that have been sitting at room temperature for over two hours should be discarded. The safe holding period would decrease to one hour in case the buffet is organized in an area with temperatures over 90 F. Leftovers should be placed in the refrigerator quickly, and no later than two hours.

Raw or minimally cooked eggs may be used in some of your favorite traditional dishes. Examples of this are Caesar salad dressing made at home, custards, ice cream, chocolate mousse, rice pudding, eggnog, and so on. Some uncooked eggs, however, may contain hazardous microorganisms. The eggs need to be added to the quantity of liquid that the recipe specifies. The mixture then needs to be heated to a temperature of 160 F. Alternatively, pasteurized eggs can be used.

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Food Safety Tips for a Buffet

Apart from keeping food away from the temperature danger zone, there are a number of other measures that are to be adopted to ensure that the food served at buffets is Safe Food.

Keep serving sizes small if the buffet is hosted at home, where it's difficult to estimate how soon the food will be consumed. Always replace serving plates that are nearly empty with ones that are freshly filled. You need to remember that bacteria from your hands may contaminate the food. Bacteria can also grow at room temperature.

Hands and surfaces should be washed often. Fresh vegetables and fruits, especially those having rinds and skins that are not consumed, should be rinsed under running water. Using a clean produce brush, firm produce has to be scrubbed.

Before opening canned food products, the lids should be cleaned. Raw meats should be kept separate from other foods. One should avoid thawing food products at room temperature. Moreover, food should always be marinated in the refrigerator. To speed up the cooling process in the refrigerator, large quantities of leftovers should be divided into shallow containers.

The Zip Temperature software, available on the Hubworks app store, provides simple, real time data that can instantly detect food temperature problems. The software also comes with a free smartphone app. Whenever a temperature violation occurs, business owners are warned promptly. They can then communicate with their teams with the help of the Zip Temperature Chitchat feature even when they are away from the business site.

Another Hubworks product called Zip HACCP helps in the monitoring of critical tasks related to food safety in real time, and guarantees that standard operating procedures are always complied with. The Cooper-Atkins Blu 2 Bluetooth food temperature monitor may be connected easily to the Zip HACCP application to ensure that food items are not undercooked or overcooked, and that pathogens are not present.

Buffet Food Safety FAQs

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1. What is the most effective method for thawing frozen food?

The safest way to thaw frozen food is to put it inside the refrigerator, where it will constantly be kept at or below 41 F, which will inhibit bacterial growth.

Alternative safe approaches include thawing frozen food by placing it in cold water, or inside a microwave oven, However, once you defrost food in a microwave oven or in cold water, you should cook the food right away.

The most important thing to remember is that food should never be thawed at room temperature. The outside of the food can easily reach the Danger Zone, even if the core may still be hard.

2. Is it true that antibacterial soap is superior to ordinary soap? Should food handlers use hand sanitizers as soap substitutes?

Antibacterial soaps have very little benefit and are not recommended above ordinary soap. In fact, some scientists are concerned that they could actually exacerbate the problem of antimicrobial resistance. It is more vital for food handlers to wash hands properly than to use a certain type of soap. Hand sanitizers can aid in the reduction of bacteria on the hands. These products, however, have not been proven to be helpful against protozoan or viral diseases, and should not be seen as a soap substitute.

3. How often can meals be safely reheated once they are cooked?

The Food Standards Agency recommends only reheating food once. However, it is actually safe to do so numerous times if done correctly.

4. What is the minimum temperature that a refrigerator or salad bar should maintain for ensuring food safety?

Temperatures in refrigerators and salad bars must be kept below 40 F to stop the formation of harmful bacteria. This is especially crucial if you are storing vulnerable food items like yogurt, cheese, salad dressings, egg products, or meats.

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