What Is the Temperature Danger Zone? Food Safety 101

Jason Webster
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What exactly is the temperature danger zone?

Many people have heard the term “temperature danger zone” but don’t really know what it is or how higher temperatures can negatively affect food.

The temperature danger zone is the range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the range of temperatures at which food-borne illnesses can grow.

These dangerous organisms can cause food poisoning, cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and dizziness. They can also cause long-term health issues, such as neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease.

Even when it’s warm out, the temperature danger zone is still a problem. Even if the outside temperature doesn’t reach 40 degrees, you can still have the temperature danger zone in your house if your temperatures bounce between 45 and 80 degrees.

To avoid this, perform these steps:

  • use a refrigerator thermometer to make sure that your refrigerator is at 39 degrees or colder
  • store leftovers in shallow bowls instead of big containers
  • keep cooked food hot in a slow cooker

How do you keep food out of the danger zone?

The temperature danger zone is the temperature range between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F. (4 degrees and 60 degrees C.). Food kept in the temperature danger zone has to be handled quickly or discarded. These temperatures are ideal for bacteria growth.

The FDA recommends to keep hot foods hotter than 140 degrees F. (60 degrees C.) and cold foods colder than 40 degrees F. (4 degrees C.). This is to maintain cold foods below, at most, 45 degrees F. (7 degrees C.) and hot foods above, at most, 140 degrees F. (60 degrees C.).

When it comes to tailgating food, we often talk about keeping hot and cold food hot and cold. That’s a little misleading because hot food should be warmer than 140 degrees F. and cold food should be cooler than 40 degrees F. Keeping hot and cold food out of the temperature danger zone means removing it as soon as it’s prepared.

With tailgating, we prepare a few dishes during the week. For example, we slow cook a 3-4 pound pork butt in the oven. We also cook a pot of chili and a dish of salsa and casseroles.

All these stay in the refrigerator. If you’re not able to cook in large batches, you will also have to store food in the refrigerator the day of your tailgate.

Keep hot food hot

Food safety is a big concern for everybody. If foods are not stored or prepared under the right temperatures, your health can come under threat.

Bacteria grow in warm temperatures and multiply quickly. Cooking food to an internal temperature of at least 165°F kills bacteria and other microbes that can make you sick. But when food cools, the growth rate slows. Food still can be contaminated even when it’s cold.

Just like a warm environment, a cold food storage may also support the growth of bacteria. So what is the “danger zone”? This is a temperature range between 40°F and 140°F that supports the growth of bacteria. It’s an important concept to familiarize yourself with.

Don’t stick your food in the danger zone because it gives enough time for your food to get contaminated. In temperature controlled environments, refrigerate your foods at 40°F. Don’t let food sit out for longer than 2 hours.

If you going to serve meat from 4 to 6 hours after cooking, it’s better to marinate it in the refrigerator.

Keep cold food cold

And hot food hot!

Food temperatures should be monitored to ensure safety and quality. To “know” a temperature is to know what the temperature ranges mean in food handling and safety in reference to food quality, initial bacterial growth and the risk of food borne illness.

For example, we are very familiar with the importance of knowing how hot different temperatures are. “Stop, children, don’t touch that. The stove is hot! That oven is hot!” We know what the danger is.

But in most cases in the kitchen, we think about it in terms of temperature measurement, in degrees. What does 130F mean? How hot is 170F? We know what the potential danger is at a range of temperatures, but we may not know that the difference between say 135F and 140F is not just five degrees.

Do you know how to tell if your food has gone bad? How long before harmful bacteria can develop and cause foodborne illness? One tip is to “log” what the temperatures of food is when you prepare it.

That way, you will be able to tell if the food has gone bad.

Storing food safely

No matter how good we get at cooking, we can never make a perfect dish unless we start by getting the ingredients right. The same concept applies when it comes to storing food.

No matter how awesome your dish may be, if it’s made with contaminated food, the end product will always be bad.

Large kitchens such as hotels and resorts are constantly making sure that the food and beverage items that they produce and serve are of the best quality. Many of these kitchens follow the policy of “food in “ time out”. As a rule of thumb, food should never be left out for more than 4 hours, unless in the freezer or refrigerator.

Most of us don’t have a food safety protocol in our kitchen, and hence, we are often unaware of the food safety basics. Protecting your food starts with being aware of how to store and handle food in a way that maintains its quality and safety.

What temperature should frozen food be stored at?

We often buy extra frozen food and want to put it in the fridge right away. But the question most of us do not know the answer to is whether or not the frozen food will last longer if we leave it out for a while. Or can we keep it in the freezer forever?

Media experts do not recommend leaving it in the freezer indefinitely because it could be harmful to your health.

But then again, how long can you leave it there?

To answer this question, you have to understand the temperature danger zone.

What is the temperature danger zone? According to Food Science News , the temperature danger zone is the range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit where bacteria such as Campylobacter, Clostridium, and Salmonella are able to multiply. Above 40 degrees, they multiply slower, but at below 40 degrees, they do not multiply at all.

The recommended storage temperature for frozen food is between 0 degrees and 4 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the temperature range where bacteria does not multiply and thus your frozen food remains safe to eat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service provides a guideline for safe food storage, which is in line with the temperature danger zone.

Reheating food

Remember that reheating food only cooks the outside portions. To kill any bacteria, the food needs to be heated to temperatures above the danger zone.

Eat within Two Hours

When an emergency arises and you need to eat something quick, remember that when your original food arrived, it was taken from a refrigerator and cooked. Even after sitting out for two hours, the inside hasn’t been reheated. This is a no-no zone for your health.

Holding food

It’s easy to quickly grasp the need to be safe when handling food. Just think about the various food-borne illnesses that you hear about in the news.

Foodborne illnesses such as salmonella, E. coli, and botulism can be very serious (they can even be deadly), and you want to be prepared to avoid them.

Luckily, when it comes to most food-borne illnesses, the solution is as simple as keeping food in the right temperature zones. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a chart for that. In short, the temperature danger zone is 40˚F to 140˚F.

Yes, the reason you put it in the fridge is so that you can eat it later!

Don’t put food in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use/eat it. Once it’s in there, you need to keep it out of the temperature danger zone.

Don’t reheat food using the same plate you used to serve it. Wash the plate and use a fresh one.

The biggest danger in the temperature danger zone is to food in the center of your grocery store (like produce, deli counter, and seafood counter) where you eat.

Food safety FAQs

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that nearly 48 million people in the United States get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year.

The dangers can’t be avoided. Some examples of these are undercooked, raw meat and poultry, unpasteurized milk and dairy products, and raw shellfish.

In order to minimize the risks, it is important to understand the danger zone and how you can avoid the undesirable outcomes.

The food safety danger zone refers to the time when perishable foods can be highly susceptible to bacterial growth. This is between 40 to 140°F.

The optimal temperature for food safety is at 40°F because of the significant numbers of microorganisms. Perishable foods should never be stored or served at temperatures above 140°F.

The danger zone is the place where bacteria can multiply quickly and cause food poisoning. The bacteria can grow double in about 20 minutes in the danger zone.

Will food spoil at 45 degrees?

It is said that frozen food can remain safe at 0 °F for six to twelve months. However, frozen food will become inedible at a temperature of 60 degrees after two to three hours.

Many people are still unsure about food safety and throw out food which is still safe to eat. This is why it is important to get some basic food safety knowledge.

The bottom line is that it is the temperature danger zone that will kill your food.

Your fridge may keep your food cold from 45 to 70 degrees. But you have to be careful that you don’t leave your food in the temperature danger zone for too long.

That’s the temperature range in which bacteria can grow fast and lead to food poisoning.

The way bacteria multiply is to raise the temperature of your food by keeping it at the temperature danger zone. So in theory, food remains safe as long as you don’t take it out of the refrigerator.

While this makes it inevitable to keep your food for a little longer while you’re traveling, it won’t kill the bacteria and therefore cannot cause food illness if you don’t take out the food and leave it for days in the temperature danger zone.

How long can meat be above 40°F?

That hot dog that you just popped in the microwave …’s growing more and more of a killer every second it stays in there.

It is imperative to know the temperature danger zone and avoid it like there is cat pee on your shoes!

This is the temperature range where bacteria can proliferate rapidly and do very bad things to your food.

If your food stays in the danger zone for too long you’re in trouble. Keep all potentially perishable food out of the danger zone!

Particularly important are meats (and meat products), and to a certain extent other protein sources, that are at risk of spoilage.

These include beef, pork, lamb, and poultry. Fish and dairy products are low-risk proteins. They do not spoil or create bacteria nearly as quickly as meat.

If they say animals are nasty, it’s true. Bacteria love meat. If you keep your food in the danger zone, bad things will happen!

It is critical to remember that only the temperature and time affect the bacteria growth (the type of bacteria present also plays a role, microbially speaking). The presence of oxygen does not affect the food in the danger zone.

How to keep food safe during a power outage?

If you’ve ever had a power outage in your house, you know how frustrating it can be. Although, a short power outage is probably not enough to cause any major problems in the fridge, it’s still a good idea to be prepared for more extended outages and consider how to keep your food safe in case of a power outage.

In the US, there are an average of 4 power outages per month. This means that if you don’t want to waste your food it’s a good idea to come up with a plan and find the best option to keep your food in the fridge safely.

Generally, perishable food items, such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, salads, fruits and vegetables are more sensitive to temperature variations.

After a storm or any other reason, you may be without power for a short time, or you may experience extended blackouts that may continue for days. Either way, it’s a good idea to know how to keep your food safe and how to prepare for power outages.

The following are the safest guidelines to follow:

Keep the refrigerator (with food inside) turned off. This will prevent the food from thawing and will keep the refrigerator at a cool temperature.

How can I tell if I should keep or throw out something that has been left out?

You may have heard people say that food is out for 15 minutes or two hours. They are usually referring to the danger zone that your food has been in. This is the time period where it’s not safe.

The danger zone is the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This range is where bacteria can grow rapidly. However, it should be noted that the growth of bacteria depends on factors such as humidity and acidity.

Some foods need to be kept in the danger zone for short periods of time, such as butter and eggs. But it is better to store them in your refrigerator to be sure if you are unsure.

Is Blue Steak Safe (And Why Do We Call it Blue in the First Place?)

There’s a lot to know about food safety when it comes to temperature and color. It’s important to know the risks and how to handle food properly to minimize the chance of any bacteria or insects being spread.

The inside temperature of juicy blue-colored beef may actually be safe to eat. It’s the exterior that needs to be checked out before the meat is turned into a juicy steak. Blue steaks can be both tender and juicy because of their high water content.

It’s problematic if you look at a color chart and conclude that all colored steaks are unsafe. That’s not the case at all.

Color only plays a minor role in determining the safety of beef. The ideal way to tell whether the inside is safe would be to measure the temperature of chicken.

Although the appearance of juices are almost always a good indicator of whether a steak is done, you should definitely not go by the color of the juices. The typical range of an internal temperature for a 145g (5 ounces) piece of steak will be from 50˚C (122˚F) for rare, 55˚C (131˚F) for medium rare and 60˚C (140˚F) for medium.