Food Safety Food Handler

Everything You Need to Know About TCS Foods: The Ultimate Guide

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Trust20 Contributors • 11 minute read

As a foodservice professional, you play a critical role in ensuring the food you serve is safe for consumption. While there are lots of factors you can't control in a restaurant, healthcare facility, or any other place that serves food–we're looking at you, random Yelp review!–food safety is one you can.

One of the key ways to do this is to understand and manage TCS foods–also known as those that require time and temperature control for safety.

In this blog, we'll provide an overview of TCS foods and give you some tips on how to keep your customers safe–and those reviews positive.

What Are TCS Foods?

Why Can TCS Foods Be Dangerous?

What Foods Are TCS Foods?

What Factors Determine if a Food is TCS?

What Foods Are NOT Usually TCS Foods?

General Guidelines for TCS Foods

Final Thoughts


What Are TCS Foods?

TCS stands for Time and Temperature Control for Safety. TCS foods are those that require specific temperature control to ensure they remain safe for consumption. These foods have the right combination of moisture, nutrients, and pH levels that can allow bacteria to grow more quickly.

Examples of TCS foods include meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, dairy products, and cooked rice and pasta (more on this in a moment!).

However, just because a food isn't technically labeled a TCS food doesn't mean it is safe from any potential hazard. Plenty of non-TCS foods contain hazards, be they biological, physical, or chemical. Combination foods are also a challenge, even if they contain non-TCS ingredients.1

If you want to ensure everyone is onboard and understands TCS foods fully, proper education is key–this article can help, and so can visual reminders. If you’re looking for a resource, you can download or screenshot the graphic below to share with your team or post around your kitchen!

TCS Foods Cheat Sheet

Why Can TCS Foods Be Dangerous?

According to federal regulations for the foodservice industry, the temperature “danger zone” for bacterial growth is between 41°F and 135°F. If TCS foods remain in this temperature range for too long, harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly, posing a serious food safety risk.

This makes it critical to regularly monitor the temperature of TCS foods (during storage, prep, and service) and document these measurements throughout the day. Someone on every shift should be assigned to check the temperatures of TCS foods with a digital food thermometer that is regularly calibrated for accuracy.

TCS foods can quickly become dangerous to consume at any point of the service cycle–from delivery to cooking and storage.

For example, raw chicken must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F to kill harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli.

But TCS foods don't just pose a risk during cooking and storage.

They can also be dangerous during transport and serving. Keeping cold TCS foods at or below 41°F during transport is important to ensure they don't enter the danger zone. Hot TCS foods should be kept at or above 135°F.

When serving TCS foods, they should be kept either hot or cold, and not left out at room temperature for more than two hours (or one hour if the temperature is above 90°F).

What Foods Are TCS Foods?

Here is a list of TCS foods from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Food and Feed Safety Division to give you an idea of what to watch out for.2

  • Meat, Poultry, Fish, and Shellfish - Any raw or cooked meat or poultry that requires refrigeration falls under the TCS category, including beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, and duck. 

  • Milk and Dairy - Milk, butter, cheese, and other dairy items made from milk are TCS foods.

  • Eggs - Eggs are also TCS foods because bacteria can easily get inside the shell and thrive in the yolk or white. 

  • Soy and Tofu - Soy products, including tofu, are TCS foods because they can contain bacteria that can grow in warm, moist environments.

  • Melons or Tomatoes That Have Been Cut - Cut fruits, such as melons or tomatoes, are TCS foods that are often served in buffets or salads. Because these fruits have a water content of over 80%, they can easily harbor bacteria, such as salmonella or listeria

  • Cooked Potatoes - Potatoes are also TCS foods because they can develop bacteria that cause botulism in anaerobic environments. 

  • Sprouts (or Sprouted Seeds) - Sprouts are a popular health food that is often used in salads or as toppings for sandwiches. However, raw sprouts are TCS foods because they can contain bacteria, such as E.coli or salmonella.

  • Leafy Greens - When the cell wall in these vegetables is ruptured, it can release nutrients that bacteria need to grow. 

  • Cooked Rice, Grains, Beans, and Other Veggies - Cooked rice, grains, beans, and vegetables are TCS foods because they can easily grow bacteria if not stored and reheated properly. 

  • Untreated Garlic and Oil Mixtures - Garlic and oil mixtures are used to add flavor to pasta and other dishes. However, untreated garlic and oil mixtures are TCS foods because they can easily grow bacteria that cause botulism. 

What Factors Determine if a Food is TCS?

TCS foods are those that are most likely to harbor bacterial growth and cause foodborne illnesses. These include foods that are high in moisture, protein, and perishable, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and cut fruits and vegetables.

These foods also have a pH level above 4.6, which is the ideal pH range for bacterial growth.

They also need to be stored at a temperature of 41°F or lower or 135°F or higher to prevent or slow down bacterial growth. If these conditions are unmet, bacteria can grow rapidly, leading to food poisoning.

Another factor that determines if a food is TCS is the method of preparation. Foods that are served raw or undercooked, such as sushi or rare steak, are considered TCS foods since they can be contaminated with harmful bacteria.

These foods require special handling and storage to prevent bacterial growth and minimize food safety risks. On the other hand, foods that are cooked thoroughly or pasteurized are less likely to contain harmful bacteria and, therefore, are not considered TCS unless stated otherwise.

Another way to evaluate if something is a TCS food is to look at the FAT TOM principles. This acronym can help you remember the six factors contributing to the growth of harmful bacteria. The more factors a food has, the higher the chances you are working with a TCS food.

What Foods Are NOT Usually TCS Foods?

On the other hand, some foods are not considered TCS foods. These are dry goods or foods that have low water activity, acid content, or pH level, making them less likely to harbor bacterial growth.

Some examples of non-TCS foods include bread, chips, candy, dried beans, uncooked rice, and powdered milk. These foods can be stored at room temperature without posing a food safety risk.

However, it's important to note that even non-TCS foods can contain safety hazards if not consumed properly or combined with TCS foods.

Combination products, such as pre-packaged salads or sandwiches, are assumed to be TCS foods unless proven otherwise. These products typically contain TCS and non-TCS ingredients, which can pose a risk if improperly handled.

General Guidelines for TCS Foods

If you work in a kitchen or even a mobile catering business, you'll find these guidelines helpful in ensuring that your food is safe, healthy, and enjoyable for your customers.

What Are the Temperature Danger Zones?

Temperature danger zones are the range of temperatures in which bacteria grow most rapidly. TCS foods should not be held in these zones for more than two hours or one hour if the temperature is above 90°F (32°C).

The danger zone ranges from 41°F to 135°F (5°C to 57°C), with the ideal temperature for maximum bacterial growth being around 70°F (21°C). It's crucial to keep TCS foods out of the danger zone to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, which can cause foodborne illness.

Where Must You Store TCS Foods?

TCS foods must be stored in a clean, dry, and sanitary place where they won't be contaminated by other foods, chemicals, or pests.

Refrigeration is the best way to store most TCS foods, with the temperature ideally set at 41°F (5°C) or lower. Frozen TCS foods should be kept at 0°F (-18°C) or lower. If you're transporting TCS foods, use insulated containers or hot and cold packs to maintain the proper temperature.

Don't leave TCS foods at room temperature for more than two hours or one hour if the temperature is above 90°F (32°C).

At What Minimum Temperature Should Hot TCS Food Be Held?

The hot holding temperature for TCS foods is 135°F (57°C) or higher to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. You should use a food thermometer to measure the temperature of hot TCS foods regularly and ensure that they remain within this temperature range.

If you're serving hot TCS foods at a buffet, use chafing dishes, steam tables, or other hot-holding equipment. Avoid reheating hot TCS foods in slow cookers or warming trays, as these devices may not heat the food evenly or quickly enough.

What is the Ideal Cold Holding Temperature for TCS Foods?

Cold TCS foods should be held at 41°F (5°C) or lower to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.

If you're serving cold TCS foods at a buffet, use ice baths or other cold-holding equipment to maintain the proper temperature. Avoid chilling TCS foods by placing them in a sink or container with ice, as this method may not cool the food quickly enough.

What Should Be Done When Cooling TCS Foods?

TCS foods must be cooled from 135°F (57°C) to 70°F (21°C) within two hours and from 70°F (21°C) to 41°F (5°C) within an additional four hours. To cool TCS foods quickly and safely, you can use one of the following methods:

  • Divide the food into smaller portions and place them in shallow pans or containers.

  • Use an ice bath or ice wand to cool the food directly.

  • Place the food in a blast chiller or cold storage room.

Remember to stir the food occasionally to promote even cooling. During the cooling process, don't leave TCS foods at room temperature for more than two hours.

How TCS Food Cooked in a Microwave Should be Handled

If you're cooking TCS foods in a microwave, be sure to follow these safety guidelines:

  • Use a microwave-safe dish with a cover to prevent splatters and spills.

  • Rotate the dish regularly to ensure even cooking.

  • Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of the food after cooking.

  • Let the food rest for two minutes before checking the temperature again.

Microwaves may not cook food evenly or quickly enough, which can lead to uneven heating and the growth of harmful bacteria–so you'll need to be extra cautious here. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions and guidelines for cooking TCS foods in a microwave.

Final Thoughts

It is essential for food handlers, servers, and managers to understand which foods are TCS foods. Applying food safety best practices, including proper storage and cooking procedures, can help you prevent contamination and protect your customers from the dangers of a foodborne illness.

You can ensure you’re clear on how to handle TCS foods and up to date on food safety best practices by keeping your food handler card current. Brush up on your TCS foods and food safety knowledge today!

FAQs About TCS Foods

Is rice a TCS food?

Rice is considered a TCS food because it has a neutral pH and high water activity, making it an ideal environment for bacterial growth if it's not properly cooked, held, or cooled.

Is uncooked pasta a TCS food?

Uncooked pasta is not considered a TCS food because it does not contain any harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. However, once cooked, pasta becomes a TCS food.

What is the ready-to-eat TCS food hold time?

The maximum hold time for ready-to-eat TCS foods is four hours. After four hours, the food must be discarded to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.

What is the correct temperature for receiving cold TCS food?

The correct temperature for receiving cold TCS food is 41°F or lower. This temperature will help prevent the growth of harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. When receiving cold TCS food, it's important to check the temperature immediately upon delivery and reject any food that is above the appropriate temperature.

Does bread require time and temperature control?

It depends on the type of bread. Pre-packaged bread that is shelf-stable does not require time and temperature control. However, freshly baked bread, which is typically served warm, should be held at a temperature of 135°F or higher.

Are sprouts a TCS food?

Sprouts are considered a TCS food because they have a high risk of contamination and can harbor harmful bacteria. In fact, sprouts have been associated with multiple foodborne illness outbreaks.


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1: SCDHE: Time/Temperature Control for Safety (TCS) Food 

2: Minnesota Department of Health: Time/Temperature Control for Safety Food