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Food Safety Temperatures and The Danger Zone

Food Safety Temperatures and The Danger Zone
Food Safety Temperatures and The Danger Zone

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. Learn about safe and unsafe temperature ranges and how to properly kill bacteria in order to assure each meal is safe for consumption.

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. If perishable foods stay in the danger zone too long, the food will spoil, meaning there will be no way to kill off the bacteria present in order to make the food safe for consumption.

When cooking or cooling perishable food in a commercial kitchen, the food will spend some time in the danger zone. The trick is to cook or cool the food fast enough to minimize its time in the danger zone. There are a variety of different cooking methods that can be used to heat the food fast enough, for optimal safety. For cooling leftovers, a blast chiller is the best option, but placing small portions of leftovers in food pans and placing them in the walk-in cooler or freezer should suffice. » Learn More about Proper Cooling and Cold-Holding Methods

Perishable Food Defined

Perishable food refers to types of food, like meat, poultry and seafood, that will spoil if not properly refrigerated. Most, perishable food also has to go through a "kill stage," like cooking, to kill off any harmful bacteria that may be present, making the food safe for consumption.

How Temperature Affects Bacteria

Temperature is the biggest factor that affects bacterial growth in 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.
  • Bacterial growth slows in a refrigerator. 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. » Learn More about Storage Times for Refrigerated Foods
  • 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, but this is a food-quality issue, not a food-safety issue.
  • Bacteria is killed by high temperatures. 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 bacteria from starting to grow again. » Learn More about Keeping Hot Foods Hot

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, so all the bacteria is killed.


Safe Internal Temperature

Steak and Roast






Ground Beef


Egg Dishes


Chicken Breasts


Whole Poultry


Casseroles/Mixed Dishes


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 is kept in the danger zone for too long, there will be too much bacteria, and no amount of cooking will be able to reverse the amount of spoilage caused by the bacteria. The food needs to 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.

The Importance of a Thermometer

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, because 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 as with all things, after repeating the correct procedures over and over, it will become second nature. Making food safety concerns second nature can only help your business by providing tasty, bacteria-free meals to customers.

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