Food safety

TCS Meaning: 6 Tips for Handling TCS Food Safely

TCS food means time/temperature control for the safety of food. TCS food requires time/temperature control to remain ...

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  • TCS food means time/temperature control for the safety of food.
  • TCS food requires time/temperature control to remain safe for a prolonged time.
  • Controlled temperature storage for a certain amount of time reduces the likelihood of foodborne pathogen growth in food.

We all know that a bowl of pork stew spoils faster than a whole loaf of bread. This is common knowledge that you would not even think a second to decide on.  If you leave both foods standing at ambient temperature, your pork stew may spoil in about 2 to 4 hours.

What about other foods? Do you ever think about the category to which your dishes belong? In a food establishment setup, knowing the factors that affect the shelf life of both products may mean a great deal.

As a wide range of food products are served in any food establishment, improper monitoring and storage may lead to wasting foods. As such, a food business team needs to define TCS food or Time/Temperature Control for Safety food and be able to differentiate which ones are included in this group - is it the bowl of pork stew or the loaf of bread?


time temperature control for tcs food chicken


There are several factors to consider when keeping different types of food wholesome. As a food handler, you need to consider every factor to reduce the chances of food spoilage to safe levels. Keeping food spoilage controlled helps food businesses such as restaurants reduce waste and contribute to food security. Approximately 1.3 billion tons of food per year is wasted. This estimation accounts for at least one-third of the foods being produced and the majority is caused by spoilage.

To help you control spoilage and prevent causing foodborne illnesses, we go over the following information about TCS foods in this article.



What does TCS stand for?

TCS stands for Time/Temperature Control for Safety. The term TCS is given to foods that generally spoil faster than others. These foods can either naturally have a high initial microorganism load or have optimal characteristics for the growth of pathogens. 

From the TCS food meaning, one can understand that foods under this category are significantly affected by any time and temperature control. Understanding the behavior of TCS foods may significantly help food handlers how to formulate, prepare, and serve their food products to consumers. This task is an important responsibility of both food managers and food handlers to prevent causing foodborne illnesses and creating food waste. 


What is a TCS food?

Otherwise known as Potentially Hazardous Foods, TCS foods are a group of products that require the factors of time and temperature to control the growth of microorganisms that are related to them. In this context, time and temperature are not only applied to cooking, but also the storage conditions of the foods before and after processing. Foods under this category are naturally sensitive to the presence of contaminants around them. TCS foods are called such because time and temperature are the most influential factors that can determine their long shelflife.

At the beginning of this article, we compared the shelflife of a pork stew and a loaf of bread. Through experience as a food handler, you would naturally know that the pork stew will spoil faster than the bread when both are kept at ambient temperature. Why do you think is that the case? The answer lies in the composition of the foods. The sensitivity of foods toward certain harmful bacteria depends on a few major factors including:

  • Acidity
  • Moisture level and water activity
  • Nutritional composition of food (e.g. carbohydrate and protein content)


These factors are all dependent on the food itself, otherwise known as intrinsic factors. They can be changed based on the formulation and preparation of the foods. Naturally, the level of the mentioned factors also affects the sensitivity of food. That is, when the acidity of foods is low and the moisture level is high, they are more sensitive to pathogenic bacteria. On the other hand, when the acidity is high and the moisture level is lower, then the food is more sensitive to molds and yeasts.

Such situations are where the effects of time and temperature can be manipulated to maintain a high level of food safety. Since acidity, extra moisture, and nutritional value cannot always be changed as they may affect quality – time and temperature controls may be applied. Perhaps the most basic rule is for food handlers to avoid storing any raw ingredients and cooked foods at the temperature danger zone for foods.

Learn more about the temperature danger zone for foods we wrote dedicated to that topic.


Which food is considered a TCS food?

As food handlers, it is your job to know what food items need time and temperature control for safety. Having substantial knowledge about what are TCS foods ensures that your team would be able to keep your food products safe for a longer time. Additionally, it lowers the risk of causing foodborne illnesses to your consumers. 

Processing and food handling practices help lower the risk of TCS food spoilage. The heat and shear force from cooking ensures that the harmful bacteria in food are reduced to acceptable levels. What about raw materials? For raw foods, proper storage would be the best solution to keep them safe.

How would you distinguish TCS food from non-TCS food? If you are the food handler tasked with preparing the food, you may have the most clues on which foods are TCS. If you are not sure, please read the next paragraph and search for more information. As mentioned above, factors such as acidity, moisture level, and nutritional composition affect the stability of foods. If any food has low acidity, high moisture, and abundant nutrients, then the food is most likely a TCS


tcs food examples


6 TCS foods: Most common TCS foods

To guide you in identifying TCS foods, here are some of the most common examples:

  • Dairy
  • Seafood (e.g. fish and shellfish)
  • Raw meat and meat products (e.g. ground meat mixtures and processed meat)
  • Cut leafy green and fruit
  • Cooked rice and legumes

The examples listed above have a few things in common. They have high moisture content, nutrients, and low acidity - except for fruits. These examples are known to be very sensitive to contamination and can spoil very fast when the conditions are not properly controlled. Using controlled temperature for a particular amount of time, the mentioned TCS food examples can stay safe.


Is bread a TCS food?

Bread is not a TCS food. This type of food, although low in acidity, has very low moisture content. As such, bread is very stable even in ambient temperatures. Also, foods such as powdered milk, dried beans, and uncooked rice are not considered TCS foods.


Why is TCS food important to understand?

Understanding TCS food meaning is the first part of building a good food safety strategy against food spoilage and foodborne illnesses. The spoilage of TCS food does not only pose a threat to public health but to the standing of your food business as well. Failure to maintain the wholesomeness of TCS food may significantly reduce your productivity. 

Specifically, knowledge of TCS food definition and any proper time-temperature control for better food handling can help your team address the following concerns:

  • Food safety hazard. TCS foods are potentially hazardous. They encourage pathogen growth regardless of proper food handling. As such, their surrounding ideal conditions must be properly maintained to ensure their safety. Once spoiled and consumed, contaminated TCS food can cause foodborne illnesses or potentially an outbreak.

Spoilage of TCS food may not be very obvious sometimes. Bacteria and other harmful microorganisms that produce toxins will not often immediately produce any changes in the characteristics of the food. This type of spoilage may be very dangerous as toxins are very tolerant to processing such as cooking.

When the internal composition of the food cannot be altered to make it safe, the next best way to keep it safe is to control TCS food temperature and its time of storage.

  • Food wastage. Obviously, when foods get spoiled, they are automatically considered food waste. Spoiled foods often produce changes in their characteristics such as:
    • Production of foul odor
    • Formation of slime or film on the surface
    • Discoloration
    • Visible colonies of molds
    • Production of acids leading to sour-tasting food
    • Partial breakdown of food structure

Once any or a combination of these changes occurs, TCS foods are considered spoiled. The mentioned changes are the result of nutrient breakdown caused by the existing pathogen. In conditions favorable to pathogens, spoilage can become faster. The sooner your team figures out how to set up proper time-temperature controls for your foods and ingredients, the more foods you can save from becoming wasted. Reduced waste means your ingredients are optimized and converted to profits properly.

  • Sustainability. The growing concern regarding the sustainability of food supply is also significantly affected by the spoilage of foods. As such, TCS foods are the target of many studies that are related to keeping them safe for a long time. Keeping raw ingredients and cooked foods wholesome ensures that communities are fed and that supply is constant. The uninterrupted supply of food in an economy ensures the productivity of the workforce.

The mentioned concerns that can be addressed by understanding TCS are just some of the most evident ones. Knowing how to keep TCS food safe can help your business gain customer confidence and brand recognition. To achieve such a feature, consistency in maintaining TCS foods is required. Constant monitoring and a comprehensive food safety management system must be properly implemented.

To make the monitoring and TSC food handling process easy for you, we offer a smart and digital solution to maintain a high level of safety in your food facility. Using artificial intelligence, our digital Food Safety Management System can help you create the most significant digital monitoring forms for your TCS monitoring and other operations. Additionally, our system can help you never forget monitoring tasks by sending smart notifications using our digital food safety product.


TCS Food temperature

Handling TCS food entails practices in controlling time and temperature. As a general rule, food handlers must always avoid keeping TCS food at 40°F to 140°F (5°C to 60°C) or the temperature danger zone. At this temperature range, your TCS foods are more sensitive and more likely to become spoiled by surrounding pathogens. The temperature danger zone serves as the optimum bacterial growth conditions.

Ideally, TCS foods must not be kept at the temperature danger zone range for more than 2 hours. Bacterial growth is optimum at this temperature range and can spoil foods faster. Practice hot holding and cold holding of finished products and storing raw material ingredients in a dry, cool place where contamination is kept at a minimum.


What is the TCS danger zone temperature range?

The TCS danger zone temperature range is 40°F to 140°F (5°C to 60°C), which is similar to the temperature danger zone for foods. Above and below this temperature range, foods are generally safer from spoilage and potential contamination. Use our Temperature Danger Zone Poster to help your team keep in ming the correct temperatures.



Tips for handling TCS foods

Several simple steps can be taken to reduce the risk of spoilage of TCS food. In this section, we will be giving you some very important tips, directions, and standards for keeping TCS food safe for a long time.


Warming TCS food

After properly cooking foods, they can still be contaminated and spoiled by pathogens. The rate at which cooked foods spoil depends on their surrounding factors, such as their containing temperature. For foods that have been cooled and stored in the refrigerator, they must first be reheated to at least 165°F (74°C). This step ensures that any contamination that may have occurred during cooling and storage is eliminated. 

Remember that reheating is different from hot holding. Never attempt to use equipment used for hot holding temperatures to reheat foods. Additionally, the heat during this step must be equally distributed within the product and must be done most efficiently. Some operations that you can do to reheat foods include using a microwave or a stovetop while occasionally stirring the dish. 


holding temperature for tcs food


Cooling TCS food

Cooling TCS food, unlike warming, must be done within a prescribed time. As per the recommendation of the FDA, TCS food must be cooled from 135°F (57°C) to 70°F (21°C) in the first two hours after cooking. Afterwhich, the internal food temperature must reach 40°F (4°C) from 70°F (21°C) in the next four hours. This process is called the two-stage cooling process. The total cooling time must not exceed a total of 6 hours.

Foods under refrigeration temperatures can be stored for longer times as bacterial processes are slowed down or stopped. To maximize protection against contamination, foods must be properly stored based on their categories. This means grouping foods based on their required degree of processing. Use a fridge layout poster to identify how to properly group foods together in a refrigerator. 

Cooling in the fastest way possible is important and needs to be done properly. One way that you can apply is to divide the TCS food into several smaller or wider containers. The point of this method is to increase the surface area of the food so heat can travel faster into the environment. Remember to make sure that the containers are all clean and will not cause any cross-contamination.

Another way to cool foods fast is to place the container on top of an ice bath. Continuously stirring the TCS food will redistribute the heat and allow the food to cool faster.


Thawing TCS food

Thawing refers to the process of melting frozen, cold foods. During the thawing of frozen food, pathogens that may have survived processing or are naturally present on ingredients may be reactivated and continue their biological processes. That means they can once again make the food unsafe and increase the risk of causing foodborne illnesses. To ensure that these pathogens in food will not be able to cause any harm, thawing must be done as fast as possible.

Some of the safest ways to thaw food include the following operations:

  • Transfer frozen foods to the refrigerator compartment with a storage temperature of 40°F (4°C). This process will take about overnight to complete.
  • Use a microwave with defrost function.
  • Set the cooking heat at low before proceeding to the target cooking temperature.
  • Submerge food in water with the tap running.


The principle behind these suggested operations is to prevent the potentially existing pathogens from gaining time to recover and cause changes to the food. Thawing foods at room temperature on a kitchen counter will not only attract pathogens but also allow the preexisting ones to spoil your food even before cooking.


cooking tcs food


Date mark TCS food

Date marking is a process of assigning a date and/ or time to food that is made in your food establishment and is expected to be held longer than 24 hours. TCS food must be date marked if their expected consumption or use will exceed overnight. As per the FDA Code Section 3-501.17, TCS foods are only advised to be stored at  41°F (5°C) or lower.This food safety regulation was specifically established by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent the pathogenic microorganism growth of cold-tolerant bacteria Listeria monocytogenes


Cook TCS food thoroughly

The potency of cold and hot holding cooked TCS food only depends on the thoroughness of processing. If the processed TCS food did not properly reach its target internal temperatures, then it is still considered a highly hazardous food. The proper cooking process with the correct time-temperature combinations is also key to reaching the maximum time for keeping foods safe. 

Different TCS foods have different proper temperatures, as well as target pathogens. Use a properly calibrated food thermometer and a cooking temperature chart to ensure that you would reach the target temperature. 


Monitor temperature constantly

Fluctuations in storage temperature can significantly affect the safety of TCS food. The recommended minimum temperature must be constantly maintained if you want to maximize TCS food wholesomeness to the suggested maximum holding time. To do this, sign up for our digital food safety or always have a temperature log sheet prepared to record accurate temperature readings. This operation is part of your food safety management system and must be properly maintained throughout holding your TCS food. 


Any TCS food can remain safe for consumption provided that it is maintained properly at the correct temperature within the prescribed time. Failure to protect TCS food from spoilage increases the risk of food wastage as well as causing foodborne illnesses to dangerous levels. To help you manage TCS foods, ensure that your food safety management system is comprehensive enough for the job.

At FoodDocs, our digital FSMS product ensures that the automatically generated forms by our system are tailored to your everyday food safety operations. These forms can even be set to be auto-filled to save time and increase the accuracy of filling them out. Our main objectives at FoodDocs are to ensure every food is safe and to make food safety compliance accessible for all food businesses. 


Temperature log FoodDocs

Monitoring TCS food with FoodDocs

How long can TCS foods be left out?

Generally, all TCS foods must be left out for a maximum time of 4 hours, ideally 2 hours only, within the TCS danger zone. When TCS foods are stored in the temperature range of 40°F to 140°F (5°C to 60°C) for more than 4 hours, the foods are advised to be discarded. Sometimes, the maximum holding time at the TCS danger zone can actually be lower depending on the quality and safety of preparation. It is always a good practice to check the temperature every two hours. This operation gives you the chance to apply any corrective action if needed.

In the case of TCS foods that are under cold holding processes with constant temperature monitoring, foods can be held up to a maximum of 6 hours. If within the time frame, the temperature increases to over the TCS danger zone, then foods must be discarded. Similar to hot holding, foods can also spoil faster even when held at a low temperature depending on the initial amounts of pathogen.


Within how many hours must be cooked TCS food be cooked?

Raw ingredients that are considered TCS food must be immediately cooked within the 4-hour window if they are not stored in a controlled temperature area. The same goes for cooked and ready-to-eat TCS food that requires reheating process before serving and consuming.

FoodDocs food safety system-1


Maintaining TCS food with a digital solution

Time and temperature are two of the most significant factors when it comes to food safety. Regardless of whether the operation is cooking, storage, delivery, or receiving process, the time and temperature of both foods and the surrounding environment will affect their safety. These facts make the maintenance of time and temperature very important for a food safety establishment. The problem is, if every operation in your food establishment requires maintenance of any time-temperature condition, you would be drowning in monitoring forms, data, and temperature readings in no time. 

A traditional food safety management system would compel you to use paper-based monitoring procedures that take up too much space and is not sustainable. With the rise of technology, FoodDocs has devised a digital solution to help food businesses maintain food safety compliance. Using our digital Food Safety Management System, you can easily compress all food safety monitoring into digital files and tuck them in secured cloud storage. 

The best part about our system is that the process required for you to switch to a digital platform is as easy as answering a few basic questions and your digital FSMS will be automatically generated in just an average of 15 minutes. Our system uses artificial intelligence and a machine learning program to automatically create the most important food safety documents that you need to maintain compliance. 

What do you get with our digital FSMS? Here is a list:

  • Our system will automatically generate digital monitoring forms that are based specifically on your everyday food safety operations. These forms have an auto-fill feature which allows our system to use your previously logged data to automatically fill out your forms. All that is left to do is to verify the information.
  • With our mobile application, our system sends out intuitive food safety operation notifications that remind food handlers whenever a task is due. You can use this to ensure that every temperature monitoring for TCS foods is fulfilled on time.
  • Our digital FSMS features a real-time dashboard that can give you a quick view of your food safety operation status. You can evaluate the performance of every food safety operation and assess whether an area needs improvement or not.
  • You will get cloud storage space where all of your digital monitoring forms can be stored, organized, and accessed anytime. 


Using our digital solution, you can achieve sustainability by leaving all paper-based monitoring forms behind and completely switching to our digital documents. With our help, you can ensure that you will maximize the shelflife of your TCS foods and significantly reduce food waste where applicable. 

At FoodDocs, we aim to make food safety compliance an easy task so it can become accessible for everybody. It wouldn't matter if you are not tech-savvy. Anyone can get a digital FSMS in an average of 15 minutes for their food business with our system at FoodDocs. Through our digital FSMS, you can be sure that your team will be able to do every operation on time without wasting energy or time. 

Want to experience these benefits first-hand? Subscribe to our free, 14-day trial where you can try all our system features for a limited amount of time. Start your food safety compliance journey with FoodDocs now.



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