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What is the Temperature Danger Zone?

A refrigerator should be set below 40°F (4.44°C) to stay out of the temperature danger zone.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 March 2014
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The food temperature danger zone refers to measurements in temperature at which harmful bacteria can quickly grow on food, even food that has been cooked to safe levels beforehand. For instance, when you cook a raw chicken to at least 180 degrees F (82.22 C), it is safe to eat. However when you leave that same cooked chicken out on the counter for several hours it may reach the danger zone and be no longer safe to consume, even if you reheat it.

Most define the temperature danger zone as between 40-140 degrees F (4.44-60 C). Allowing food to hit this danger zone means you should discard it. Some might ask, does that mean all food? Actually it applies mostly to cooked or prepared food and any foods that require refrigeration. You don’t need to keep apples at below 40 degrees F, though they will keep longer if you refrigerate them.

Any dairy products, many vegetables, all meat and fish, and things like eggs should be refrigerated as soon as you get them home. Many canned or jarred products like tomato sauce, peanut butter or salsa, also require refrigeration as soon as they are open. Naturally, your refrigerator should be set below 40 degrees F to make sure food is not being stored in the danger zone.

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Most often though, people use the temperature zone as a means of determining when to refrigerate cooked food. Since bacteria will thrive in this zone, any food left out too long should be suspicious and shouldn’t be consumed. The US Centers for Disease Control have some interesting statistics on food poisoning. Over 70 million people get food poisoning each year.

Most of these cases are not the huge newsworthy cases of contaminated food. Instead they are incidents where people get sick from food they have not stored properly. Many people confuse food poisoning with stomach flu, and don’t report symptoms. Yet, we could do a lot by keeping food outside of the temperature danger zone to help reduce these illnesses.

One way to determine if food should be refrigerated yet is to keep a clean meat thermometer in it. This will work well with most meat. If you note internal temperature dropping into the temperature danger zone, you can transfer food to the fridge. Others say that most cooked foods should be refrigerated within a couple hours of cooking.

When you serve things like cooked meat again, or luncheon meats, you should heat them to over 165 degrees, even if they were fully cooked before. However when food has been improperly stored, this may not be enough to kill all bacteria. Don’t risk it if you think food may have sat too long at unsafe temperatures. It is simply not worth a case of food poisoning to eat food that might have been improperly stored.

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Discuss this Article

clintflint
Post 3

@Fa5t3r - People are very cautious about chicken and other meat, but don't realize the danger that rice and similar carb-based meals can have. When you think about it, cooked rice is generally moist and pretty much a perfect environment for bacteria.

People will leave it out overnight without thinking about leftover food safety and then just reheat it slightly for lunch the next day and wonder why they suddenly get sick.

If you pop it into the fridge there shouldn't be any problems. But it should definitely be treated with the same caution as you would treat any raw meats.

Fa5t3r
Post 2

@pleonasm - Another benefit to keeping eggs out of the fridge is that they become easier to peel when they've had a couple of days to age. I think you've just got to be careful though, if you're in an area where raw eggs can be dangerous. I would never eat raw eggs in the first place, but I would be especially careful not to eat them if they hadn't been kept in the correct food safety temperatures.

The dangers of eating meat and even rice and things like that which have been left out for a long time is much greater than that of eating properly cooked eggs. Generally I think the only time you can get sick from cooked eggs is if they were very off in the first place and you can smell that as you're cooking them.

pleonasm
Post 1

I don't know if it's because I don't live in an area with very warm temperatures, but I never refrigerate my eggs and they last just fine for a couple of weeks or so. They probably last longer in the fridge, but honestly I usually finish them well before they go off.

I guess I actually like having them outside the fridge because it makes it easier to boil them without the shell cracking. If they are too far below cooking temperature and you drop them in hot water, the shell might burst and the egg doesn't turn out very well in that case.

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