Food Safety Temperatures and The Danger Zone


Food safety is so important to Kenny Loggins, he felt the need to write a rock anthem about it.

Like the 80’s heartthrob, food safety is a top concern for every commercial kitchen. Time and temperature play a huge role in whether food is safe to eat or needs to be thrown out. In order to keep customers happy, your food safe and lawsuits at bay, it’s important to learn about safe and unsafe temperature ranges and how to properly kill bacteria in order to assure each meal is safe for consumption.

What is the Danger Zone?

The danger zone refers to the temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F. This is the temperature range in which harmful bacteria multiply the fastest. Perishables left in the danger zone too long will spoil, meaning the amount of bacteria present makes the food unsafe for consumption.

When cooking or cooling perishable food in a commercial kitchen, there’s no getting around spending a little time in the danger zone. The trick is to cook or cool the food fast enough to minimize time spent in bacteria-laden temps. There are plenty of options for heating food to optimal safety levels, but cooling is a different beast altogether. Utilizing a blast chiller is the best option, but placing small portions of leftovers in food pans and storing them in a walk-in cooler or freezer would work just fine.

What Does ‘Perishable Food’ Mean?

Perishable food refers to meat, poultry and seafood that will spoil if not properly refrigerated. Most perishable food must go through a “kill stage,” like cooking, to fend off any harmful bacteria that may be present.

How Temperature Affects Bacteria

Temperature is the biggest factor in bacterial growth for perishable food. The key for all foodservice operators is to decrease or eliminate bacterial growth in order to assure maximum shelf life and food safety.

  • Bacteria multiplies rapidly in the danger zone. Bacteria multiply best in a warm, moist environment. Perishable food that is between the temperatures of 40°F and 140°F provide an ideal environment, and bacteria will multiply at an exponential rate. After two hours in the danger zone, there will be too much bacteria, and the food needs to be thrown out.
  • Refrigerators slow bacteria growth. When perishable food is refrigerated, bacterial growth slows to a crawl, but it does not stop. That’s why food still spoils when it’s in the refrigerator. Most raw food can only be refrigerated for a couple of days before it spoils, but cooked leftovers will usually keep for about a week.
  • Bacteria are dormant when frozen. At temperatures below 32°F, bacteria go dormant and do not reproduce. This will not save already-spoiled food, but it will provide a longer shelf life. The only potential problem is freezer burn, which is actually caused by dehydration. This doesn’t make the food unsafe for eating, but it will affect the color and taste.
  • High temperatures kill bacter. Once food starts to approach 145°F, the bacteria starts to die. Prepared foods like soups and stews need to be kept above 140°F until they are served in order to prevent the soup of the day from becoming the regret of the day.


Safe Temperatures for Cooked Food

In order for perishable food to be safe for consumption, it has to reach a USDA-recommended minimum safe internal temperature. The food also has to be held at the specified temperature for a minimum of 15 seconds to kill the bacteria.


Safe Internal Temperature

Steak and Roast145°F
Ground Beef160°F
Egg Dishes160°F
Chicken Breasts165°F
Whole Poultry165°F
Casseroles/Mixed Dishes165°F


The reason for the different food safety temperatures has to do with food density, size and how much it is handled before it is cooked. For example, steak can be cooked to a lower temperature than ground beef because the inner layers of the beef are never touched. Since the outer and inner layers of ground beef are mixed together, a higher temperature is needed to assure that all of the bacteria is dead.

The Two-Hour Rule

As mentioned before, if food hangs out too long in the danger zone, it’ll succumb to bacteria and should be thrown out. Furthermore, it is important that managers or kitchen staff check the temperatures of soups, stews or other prepared foods a minimum of every two hours to make sure the food is above 140°F. If the food is too cool, adjust the temperature and check it again in a half-hour.

Thermometers: The Best Defense

Whether cooling, cooking or keeping food warm, the only way to know if the food is safe is by using a meat thermometer. This is especially true when cooking meat, because a lot of people rely on visual cues (like the absence of pink on the inside) to determine that a piece of meat is done. Visual cues of doneness are not reliable, but a thermometer is. Insert the thermometer probe into the thickest part and read the dial. Make sure the probe isn’t touching a bone as it will return a false reading.

Having to constantly check temperatures and observe safe food handling practices may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but over time it will become second nature. Making food safety concerns a top priority will only help your business by providing tasty, bacteria-free meals to customers.


About Author

John Garcia

Amateur cook, expert eater. Originally from Granby, Colorado, I'm a mountain boy who enjoys the simple things in cheeseburgers and pet cats. I'm also a blogger for Food Service Warehouse who enjoys writing about food just as much as eating it.

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