food temperature danger zone | 6 mins read

Food Temperature Danger Zone- What it is and How to Avoid it

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Sanchari Chatterjee

By Sanchari Chatterjee

What is the Food Temperature Danger Zone?

If you leave food out in the open at room temperature for too long, it stands the chance of contracting bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella Enteriditis, and other deadly organisms that may cause illnesses. Bacteria grows rapidly in the temperature range of 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, bacteria can double their numbers in a matter of 20 minutes. Thus, this temperature range is referred to as the "danger zone".

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. fall ill every year, while 3,000 deaths are recorded due to food-borne illnesses. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has thus laid down a set of guidelines to keep food out of the "danger zone", along with certain cooking, food storage and reheating norms. Let us find out more about them.

Danger Zone Temperature and Food Safety- What's the Connection?

When food is left unattended or allowed to enter the temperature "danger zone", it stands the risk of allowing bacteria to multiply quickly and cause contamination, resulting in illness. The danger zone may lead to visible bacteria growth or even change the taste of food. In other cases, the food may appear perfectly normal, but the effects will show only after consumption. This is why food safety temperatures play an important role in cooking and storing food.

If you are a foodservice professional or are cooking at home for your family and guests, it's important to keep food safety guidelines in mind in order to steer clear of food-borne illnesses. Not only cooking and storing, safe food temperatures also need to be monitored while chilling, heating and serving food.

Temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit can significantly reduce the chances of bacteria growth. The colder the food, the harder it is for bacteria to multiply. However, freezing doesn't necessarily eliminate the chances of bacteria formation. Thus, in case of cold food, raw ingredients, etc., the best way to get rid of bacteria is by cooking or processing it. Keep in mind the different temperature guidelines to make sure your food safe to eat.

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Rule for Internal Temperature

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The internal temperature at which a food item, such as meat, is cooked often determines if it can be stored or kept idle for long. So getting the food's internal temperature right can save you a lot of worry over contracting harmful bacteria.

  • The USDA recommends that when you are cooking raw meat and poultry, you should always maintain a safe internal temperature. The minimum internal temperature for poultry, stuffings and reheating leftovers should be at 165 F, says the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines.
  • For beef, pork, lamb, steaks, etc., the internal temperature should be 145 F.
  • For egg dishes and ground meat, the recommended internal temperature is 145 F, while for reheating fully cooked ham, it is 140 F.
Since it is humanly impossible to gauge the internal temperature manually, make sure to use food thermometers to check if your food has reached the required temperature.

Rules for Hot Food

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Restaurants and commercial kitchens often prepare food in advance. For special occasions and festive seasons, kitchens often start cooking ahead of time and store all the cooked dishes for later use. However, food safety often becomes a concern in such cases when hot foods are cooled down to store them for use later.

  • The best conditions for bacterial growth is heat and warmth. So when food remains hot and unattended, it runs the risk of developing harmful bacteria. In order to prevent this, it is recommended that you rapidly cool down hot foods.
  • Never leave hot, perishable food items unattended or exposed to high temperatures (for example, during picnics) for over two hours. If the temperature is above 90 F, the food should be consumed within an hour, otherwise, it may start experiencing bacterial growth.
  • If the hot food item has to be consumed after two hours, it is best to reduce the internal temperature to 40 F after it is already cooked properly. This way, it will no longer be able to create a safe, warm environment for bacterial growth.
  • For sauces, soups and gravy food items, it is best to bring these to a boiling point while reheating for consumption. This will make sure there is no bacteria in the food.

  • According to the CDC, researchers have identified more than 250 foodborne illnesses and most of these are caused by harmful bacteria, viruses or parasites.
  • The population most susceptible to food poisoning are older adults, young children, people with weak immune systems and pregnant women.

Rules for Food That is Safe to Eat

In order to avoid food poisoning and foodborne illnesses, you need to conduct a Hazard Analysis and follow a number of food safety steps that come before the cooking, as bacterial growth can be caused by a number of factors. So, before worrying about safe temperatures, let's look at all the norms you need to follow to prepare safe food.

  1. Clean and wash- Germs and bacteria can come from anywhere and everywhere. The CDC therefore advises chefs, handlers, and anyone touching the food to wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water during, before and after preparing the food or eating it. Also, rinse your utensils and kitchen equipment with soap water. Rinse fresh vegetables and fruits under running water for food safety.
  2. Separate- Raw meat, poultry and seafood items can contaminate other foods if kept in close contact. So it is always recommended that you keep it separate from other grocery items, ingredients and food in any form.
  3. Cook well- Food is safe to eat when it is cooked under a strict watch and by ensuring that it hits the right internal temperature that is needed to eliminate bacteria and germs. Use food thermometers to know the right internal temperature and follow the temperature guidelines mentioned above for each food item.
  4. Refrigerate- Since bacterial growth multiplies in the "danger zone" temperature range, it is crucial to maintain appropriate temperature control. Do not ever leave perishable food items at room temperature for over two hours. If it needs storage, refrigerate the food below 40 F after it is cooked well.

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Rules for Safe Temperature

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The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has laid down a set of recommendations and guidelines for food handlers and cooks to follow while handling food of any kind. The FDA has prepared a list of the safe cooking temperatures for each food category and listed the internal temperatures that will make sure bacteria is eliminated. Use accurate devices like Zip Thermometer to get these temperatures right, as eyeballing or manually feeling for the right temperature is a terrible idea.

  • For ground meat and meat mixtures, be it beef, pork, turkey, lamb or chicken, the internal temperature should be 160-165 F.
  • Fresh beef, pork, veal and lamb should be cooked at 145 F with a resting time of 3 minutes.
  • Whole chicken, duck and goose should also reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F to be cooked properly.
  • Raw ham needs to be cooked at 160 F and pre-cooked ham at 140 F.
  • Eggs and egg dishes are recommended to be cooked at 160 F, while fish items can be cooked at 145 F.

Food Safety FAQs

Q1- What does the 'use by' date mean?
A- 'Use by' dates are typically seen on highly perishable food items such as bread or dairy products. This means the food has to be consumed before the 'use by' date and it is illegal to use it after that and can compromise food safety.

Q2- What does the 'best before' date mean?
A- 'Best before' dates are used on packaged food products that have a greater shelf life and can be stored for a longer period. Food products that have crossed the 'best before' date are usually destroyed as the quality diminishes beyond that time.

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