There is one tried and true principle in food handler safety: keep hot food hot, and cold food cold. This is the best way for foodservice workers to keep food out of the "Danger Zone," or the temperature range where bacteria can grow at an alarming rate.
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service sets the Temperature Danger Zone as the range of temperatures between 40°F and 140°F and the Minnesota Department of Health defines the "Zone" as between 41°F and 135°F. This temperature range creates an environment where dangerous bacteria can sometimes double in number in just 20 minutes.
While any food could potentially host dangerous pathogens, foods we typically think of as “perishables” tend to grow contaminants at a much more prolific rate. In the realm of safe food handling practices these are known as TCS Foods, or foods that need time and temperature control for safety. There are six factors that affect bacterial growth in food: time, temperature, moisture, acidity, nutrients, and oxygen – and TCS Foods are most likely to be affected by all six factors (SmartSense).
The list of these foods includes milk and dairy products, eggs, meat (beef, pork, and lamb), poultry, fish, shellfish and crustaceans, baked potatoes, tofu or other soy protein, sprouts and sprout seeds, sliced melons, cut tomatoes, cut leafy greens, untreated garlic-and-oil mixtures, and cooked rice, beans, and vegetables (Gordon Food Service).
The USDA also recommends having a food thermometer on hand and explains the importance of cooking to the proper internal temperature below:
Time and Temperature Control Cheat Sheet:
Never leave food out of refrigeration for more than two hours.
Keep hot food hot (at or above 140 °F) with chafing dishes, steam tables, slow cookers, etc. – especially if you aren’t serving it right away.
When reheating foods, they should always be reheated thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165°F. Make sure foods are covered and rotated so they heat evenly.
Keep cold food cold (at or below 40 °F) by placing food in containers in coolers filled with ice or packed with ice packs.
The improper cooling of cooked foods is the most common cause of foodborne illness. TCS Foods must pass through the Temperature Danger Zone as fast as possible – two hours or less – to prevent this.
Always reduce the size of a dish to efficiently begin the cooling process. Ice-water baths, Ice paddles, Blast or tumble chillers, and using cold water as an ingredient are all safe and effective methods to cool foods.
Bottom line: whether cooking or cooling food, food handlers need to pass dishes through the temperature danger zone as quickly as possible. Food handler training is an essential part of delivering a safer dining experience! Are the food handlers on your team adequately prepared?