One of the reasons why food science exists is because people could no longer trust what they ate.
This fear is not unfounded, because our existence in this world has had numerous incidents where we have battled food-borne diseases that have ravaged some populations to near extinction.
As research and technology intensified within the periods of rapid global industrialization, food scientists wanted answers to many food questions.
One of these questions was to do with the reasons for food spoilage and possible causes.
One thing that emerged is the presence of microorganisms in food and their activities that caused food to go bad.
The activities of these microorganisms are largely dependent on the temperature at which food is prepared and stored.
Temperature and food are usually in an entanglement kind of relationship where at one point they are all smiley and friendly and in the next minute, they are busy trying to kill each other.
This complicated relationship is part of the reason why you bought that fridge and microwave cooker.
Before we go into further details, I will have to dissect this food science jargon here so that we remain on the same page as we move along.
The Temperature Danger Zone Explained
Advanced food science research consistently showed that most cooked foods would spoil if held under what is known as ambient temperature.
Ambient temperature is what is considered normal temperature or sometimes loosely referred to as room temperature.
The temperature danger zone falls under the range of ambient temperature; usually between 40oF (5oC) and 140oF (60oC) where spoilage bacteria are known to multiply rapidly in food.
If cooked food is held under this range, it will be unfit for human consumption within a period of four hours.
This is why regulators in the food industry, food business owners, and ordinary people like you should always honor the hot holding temperatures (above the danger zone) and the cold holding temperatures (below the danger zone).
Any food that stays for more than 4 hours in the temperature danger zone should never be consumed.
The Danger Zone in Our Day-to-Day Life
If you are still wondering what we are talking about here, I will give some examples and let you judge if you have been observing basic food safety rules when cooking and holding food.
I know most people do not have time and equipment to keep monitoring their food temperature.
Let’s start with the cooking because that is where all the mess about food spoilage begins.
In that case, think about the temperature at which you cook your food; especially meat.
For the sake of food safety, you need to make sure that meat is properly cooked to the core.
Even if you don’t have a food thermometer, you should either chop it into small pieces or make incisions to have it fully cooked.
One thing you should note here is that cooking your food to the right temperatures will not prevent microorganisms from growing in the food again.
They will still grow again if the food is held in the danger zone for sufficient time.
How to Refrigerate Cooked Food Properly
If you are not going to consume cooked food immediately, you need to hold it above or below the temperature danger zone.
Since you have a fridge, you should let the hot cooked food cool down to about 70oF (21.1oC) before refrigeration.
The cooling should be done within two hours.
Make sure your fridge temperature is set below the 40oF (5oC) mark which is below the danger zone.
The food should be covered to maintain the internal temperatures.
Reheating Refrigerated Food
When warming cold food or thawing frozen food that was initially cooked, it is advisable to get it back to 70oF (21.1oC) within 2 hours and consume it immediately.
If not consumed immediately, you need to heat it up to 140oF (60oC) in a microwave and hold it on a food warmer at that temperature or above.
It is not recommended to return thawed or unfrozen food inside the refrigerator after microwaving.
Just take out the portion you wish to eat and return the rest to the refrigerator to avoid cross-contamination inside the fridge.
If this is not how you are using your refrigerator and microwave, you are not late to the party of food safety.
Does the Danger Zone Apply to All Foods?
Before you become paranoid about eating anything that is not hot or frozen cold, it is important to mention that this danger zone phenomenon does not apply to every food.
As I have been specifying above, it is usually applicable to cooked foods or let’s say foods that require heat treatment.
You should bother less about the danger zone with foods such as fruits or vegetable salads.
The temperature danger zone is an important factor for foods such as:
- Meat and meat products such as steak, sausages, salamis, ham, minced meat, and bacon
- Fish and fish products
- Chicken and chicken products such as eggs
- Dairy products that are not pasteurized or sterilized
- Cooked vegetables and cereals
- Opened canned products that need reheating
- Baked and fried foods
The Temperature Danger Zone and Seasons
As noted earlier, both food safety and food spoilage are largely products of temperature fluctuations.
The seasonal temperature fluctuations experienced in many places in the world usually affect the time food will stay within the temperature danger zone.
During the cold season, food tends to stay below the danger zone due to the low temperatures.
The high summer temperatures allow food stored under normal conditions to stay longer in the danger zone.
Since we all desire to have healthy diets, eating fresh foods is one step that guarantees what we are eating is actually going to be useful in our bodies.
It is important to know that different seasons will provide different challenges to food freshness.
The way you store food during winter is not the same way you should store the food in summer.
Let’s see why.
Why Food Spoils Faster in Summer
Food spoilage is usually an act of four main factors:
- Harmful microorganisms multiplying in food to levels that are dangerous when ingested by humans
- Microorganism’s excretions or toxins that are poisonous if ingested
- Enzymes that accelerate spoilage reactions in food such as enzymatic browning
- Chemical processes such as oxidation caused by free radicals in food
You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned temperature as a factor yet that is what we are talking about here.
Well, all the spoilage factors mentioned above cannot happen without favorable conditions.
The microorganisms and enzymes need specific conditions for them to be active and multiply. Just the same way you cannot effectively work in ice-cold waters or under the scorching Sahara sun.
That is where temperature comes into play.
Other than a few thermal microorganisms, most spoilage bacteria are only active within the temperature danger zone.
The temperature conditions during summer fall perfectly within the danger zone.
It also takes more time for the food temperature to drop below the danger zone in summer than in cold seasons.
The spoilage microorganisms and enzymes thus have a longer feast time during summer which incidentally shortens your feast time.
It’s just life and something has to give for another to thrive.
List of Things to do to Avoid the Temperature Danger Zone
Before I make this list, it is important to know that you cannot eliminate all microorganisms in food by simply heating or refrigerating the food.
In fact, refrigeration only makes them inactive and they are always ready to spring back into action once you take them to their favorite danger zone.
Heating the food can kill them, but then we know that our air, hands, and surfaces are full of microorganisms.
They will just find their way into the food and wait for the perfect conditions to multiply to the dangerous levels that cause spoilage.
You might be thinking— why all this yet I have been doing just fine leaving my food in the open and eating it even after 5 hours!
You might have survived because your immune system is strong or was strong at that particular moment.
One thing you need to know is that food safety measures are meant to protect the weakest among us. Someone older, younger or sick might not be lucky.
This is why you need to keep these 10 guidelines in mind if you want to be safe about the danger zone thing.
- Cook meat and fish all through following the USDA cooking temperature-time combination guidelines.
- Preferably, chop the meat into smaller pieces or make incisions on the steak before cooking or grilling.
- Keep cooked food either in a refrigerator or on food warmers if you are not consuming it immediately.
- Make sure the temperatures of your holding equipment
- Cover the food being held whether in the refrigerator or on food holding equipment for equal temperature distribution and to prevent cross-contamination.
- Although not absolutely necessary, it is important to monitor food temperature frequently using a food thermometer
- Avoid returning thawed or unfrozen food inside the refrigerator after microwaving.
- Do not overstuff your refrigerator with a mixture of cooked and uncooked food. Separate cooked and uncooked food in the kitchen and in the fridge.
- For commercial food entities, follow the First-in First-out (FIFO) method in preparing and serving cooked food.
- Be mentally strong enough to discard cooked food that has stayed for more than 4 hours within the temperature danger zone. The repercussions of food poisoning could be worse than the little money you are trying to save by consuming spoiled food.
Keep safe and let your food stay away from this danger zone because it will be unfair for you to wear those masks religiously only to remove them and introduce bacteria in your mouth.