Food safety

What is the temperature danger zone for food?

The temperature danger zone for food is recognized to be within 40°F to 140°F (5°C to 60°C). Within the temperature ...

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  • The temperature danger zone for food is recognized to be within 40°F to 140°F (5°C to 60°C).
  • Within the temperature danger zone for food, pathogens can multiply at a fast rate and can spoil foods within the first 2 hours.
  • Foods are advised to be kept outside the temperature danger zone using operations such as hot holding and refrigeration.

At home, when you can't finish your food, you know to never leave it on the countertop of your kitchen if you intend to eat it at a later time. As part of your food safety precautions, you always repack it and put it inside the refrigerator. This is also the case when you do make-ahead recipes. You are well aware that food safety hazards can contaminate them anytime and cause your food to spoil. In a professional kitchen setup, these scenarios also happen.

To prepare for busy food service each day, food handlers partially prepare some of the ingredients to speed up the process during service. Food handlers do this to keep the food away from the temperature danger zone. Does this sound familiar? What is the temperature danger zone for food exactly?



In any operation involving food, understanding the effects of temperature is very important. Whether may it be for cooking, storage, or delivery, the temperature can significantly affect the safety of your food items. The temperature of food is one of the main factors that influence the rate at which pathogens grow. Knowing how to use temperature control to your advantage can save you a lot of time and comply with several food safety practices. With properly executed food safety practices, your restaurant can operate seamlessly and gain customer confidence in the long term.

In this article, learn more about the principles of the temperature danger zone for food and how to apply it to the different operations of your food business.


temperature danger zone for food


What is the temperature danger zone for food?

The temperature danger zone is the range at which most pathogenic microorganisms thrive and optimally multiply, thereby increasing the risk of foodborne illnesses. This temperature range is generally recognized within 40°F and 140°F (5°C and 60°C, respectively). At this temperature, pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, yeasts, viruses, and parasites thrive best. Temperatures within this range are often used as model temperatures and the perfect environment to determine the optimal doubling time of bacteria, or the time needed by bacteria to double in number. Around 40°F to 140°F (5°C to 60°C), it takes around 20 minutes for fast-growing bacteria such as E.coli to double in number. 

Depending on the initial load of the pathogens on the food, spoilage can occur at a rapid rate within the first 2 hours of keeping food at room temperature. Of course, other factors such as acidity, moisture level, presence of preservatives, and nutrient content also affect the process.

To control and prevent spoilage due to storing foods within the food safety temperature danger zone, food handlers must always practice maintaining constant food temperature reading of 39°F (4°C) and below or 141°F (61°C) and above depending on the intended use of foods. At these temperatures, the growth of bacteria and other pathogens is slowed down or stopped.

Use our free Temperature Danger Zone Poster to help your team keep in mind the correct temperatures.


Why is it important to know about the temperature danger zone?

Knowing what is the temperature danger zone for food is one of the initial steps in maintaining very high standards in keeping food safe. At this stage, food handlers can also become aware of the risks of keeping foods at the temperature danger zone may have. The importance of maintaining the correct and safe temperature during cooking and storing foods is equally important. Bacteria and other pathogens are more likely to contaminate foods when stored within the temperature danger zone for food. 

Especially for high-risk foods, contamination and spoilage have a higher risk of occurring when any perishable food is stored in the temperature danger zone. These foods include the following:

  • Milk and dairy products
  • Eggs and egg products
  • Raw meat and meat products
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Starch-rich foods (e.g. cooked pasta and rice)
  • Sauces


These types of food are considered high-risk whether raw or cooked because of their rich nutritional content that is just very inviting for pathogens. Raw ingredients have naturally occurring microorganisms that could multiply and spoil food when stored within the food temperature danger zone. This is very much observable in milk.

Raw milk is a well-known rich medium for microorganisms. It naturally contains some level of pathogenic microorganisms such as Staphylococcus aureus, E.coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, and Salmonella depending on the level of critical food safety practice applied during its extraction. Because of its rich natural microflora and abundance of nutrients, unpasteurized milk can spoil within the first two hours when kept at room temperature.

In addition to the effects of naturally occurring pathogens on food, cross-contamination can also contribute to food spoilage at the temperature danger zone. With adequate knowledge that the effects of storing ready-to-eat foods at the temperature danger zone can worsen the potential risks of cross-contamination, food handlers can be warier.

Another example of foods that can go bad very fast when stored within the temperature danger zone includes cooked meats and salads. Often, these foods are served during catering services. In a buffet setup, the foods are naturally served in large batches inside chafing dishes, waiting for consumers to get their food. During this stage, the dishes are very prone to contamination. To prevent the growth of bacteria, whether newly introduced or left after cooking, the dishes must be held at a high temperature. This helps prevent any bacteria or other pathogens from multiplying because of the unfavorable environment for bacteria. 

Knowing how spoilage can occur due to the temperature danger zone can help your food business stay away from food safety issues. It also serves as a compliance step to the regulations set out by food safety agencies. 


temperature danger zone for dairy, eggs and raw meat


How long can food stay in the temperature danger zone?

The general rule for storing foods within the temperature danger zone is that foods must not be openly left in this condition for more than 2 hours. Additionally, if the temperature is around 90°F (32°C), then it is advised not to keep foods out of refrigeration or hot holding for more than 1 hour.

When foods are meant to be served at a later time, keep them either in hot holding containers or in cold storage. On the one hand, foods meant to be served hot must be maintained at above 140 °F (60°C). On the other hand, for foods that will be consumed at a much later time such as the next day, food handlers are advised to refrigerate them below 40°F (5°F)

Perhaps the best way to monitor if foods are kept outside of the food safety temperature danger zone is to have a comprehensive food safety management system (FSMS). At FoodDocs, we take this step even further. We have developed a digital Food Safety Management System that automatically creates smart monitoring forms based on the everyday operations of a food business. You can rest easy that your employees will never miss a monitoring point for checking the temperature danger zone for foods.


Who's at risk when the danger zone is ignored?

Anyone can get foodborne illnesses from eating spoiled or contaminated foods. Some customers will experience mild symptoms of food poisoning such as nausea and stomach cramps. Despite this, other groups of customers are more prone to sick from foodborne illnesses. These customers are considered as part of the high-risk groups. They have compromised or weaker immune systems when compared with a healthy, average-aged consumer. 

Individuals who are either children under 5 years old, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems are part of the high-risk group. With weaker defenses, these individuals are more likely to get foodborne illness even with a low bacterial load. Food handlers must be very aware of how to properly execute food handling practices to achieve hygienic foods.

Reactions to the effects of the temperature danger zone can vary depending on the degree of spoilage. Regardless, these effects can be life-threatening at times. There may be instances where the effects of food poisoning are mild. Despite this, for contaminations that cannot be readily observed by the basic senses such as toxin production, the lives of the consumers can be at stake.

Consuming foods contaminated by toxin-producing pathogens have a greater risk of sending customers to the hospital. Even more so for the vulnerable group of customers. Such occurrences show the negligence of food safety practices on the part of food businesses and can lead to significant customer complaints.


How to reduce the risks of the temperature danger zone?

Although the temperature danger zone comes with many food safety risks, it is a controllable factor. Food handlers must be trained on some of the food safety practices that can be performed to reduce these risks. Two of the best methods to keep foods away from the temperature danger zone include:

  • Hot holding foods
  • Refrigerated food temperature storage


In both practices, foods are stored in conditions with controlled temperatures, either higher or lower than the temperature danger zone for foods. These conditions help stop or slow down the growth of pathogenic microorganisms that could spoil food fast. To ensure the effectiveness of these two practices, constant monitoring of the storage temperature must be performed which can be effortlessly done with a digital food safety management system.

In addition to constant monitoring, a properly working and calibrated thermometer is key to properly performing these operations. Using a digital food thermometer, food handlers can verify if the target temperature for each operation is constantly maintained. Incorrect reading of temperature can lead food handlers to believe that the foods are out of the temperature danger zone when they are not.

As part of a food business' food safety management system, these temperatures can be regularly monitored. Temperature readings must be recorded every 2 hours. Our food safety system at FoodDocs is one (good) way how food business owners can become assured that these operations are always performed.

Our digital FSMS also features a notification system that alerts food handlers of tasks such as measuring the temperature of your foods. In addition, data logging can be done automatically by our system to make recording easier for your team.


Temperature log FoodDocs


Hot holding temperature

Hot holding refers to the operation at which food is continuously held at a temperature higher than the temperature danger zone for foods. Very hot or freshly prepared foods can be held at 135°F (57°C) or above. This temperature stops the growth of any potentially contaminating bacteria or other pathogens.

Hot holding is usually done using a chafing dish with a low heat source at the bottom to maintain the desired temperature continuously. Other foods such as soups can be held on top of a hot bath to avoid potentially overcooking the food. These hot holding units aim to maintain a constant temperature.


Hot holding temperature

Monitoring hot holding with FoodDocs app


Food temperatures in hot holding units 

As mentioned, the minimum hot holding temperature is 135°F (57°C). Below this temperature, foods are more likely to become spoiled faster. In addition to this information, some foods, when properly cooked, can be held at a lower temperature. A good example would be cooked roast. Bigger portions of roasts tend to maintain a high temperature longer. As such, roasts can be held at a minimum temperature of 130°F (54°C). 

Hot holding foods does not mean that you can keep them at low-heat temperatures for a prolonged time. Factors such as the container you're using, the exposed surface, and the environment you are in can significantly affect the duration of holding your food at hot-holding temperatures. In the absence of a built-in thermometer and if foods are expected to be displayed for a very long period, we recommend that you check the temperature every 2 hours. This will allow you to apply any corrective actions if necessary.

During hot holding, consider the following operations to keep foods hot:

  • Cover foods to protect them from contamination and to keep the temperature constant.
  • Do not serve food that was kept below the recommended hot holding temperature or within the temperature danger zone for foods.
  • When foods are in chafing dishes, avoid stirring the food. This will introduce potential contamination to the rest of the batch. Chafing dishes are designed to distribute the heat evenly when closed.
  • Do not use hot-holding equipment for reheating foods.
  • Measure the temperature at regular intervals.
  • Do not mix new batches with the ones already on display. This will increase the risk of introducing contamination.


During hot holding, the constant temperature reading is key to achieving the maximum benefits of the process. If the temperature during hot holding fluctuates, the time it takes for the temperature to rise again may allow pathogens to multiply and spoil the food. As such, hot-held foods must be consistently monitored. 


Here are a few answers to some specific questions to help you understand hot holding operations more.


What is the maximum number of hours that food can be held in the food temperature danger zone?

Most foods can be held for a maximum of 4 hours within the food temperature zone. This time limit represents the maximum time that foodborne illness-causing bacteria can contaminate and spoil the food.


Why is it called the danger zone?

This temperature range represents the temperature at which most foodborne illness-causing bacteria grow best. As such, foods stored in the temperature danger zone are more likely to spoil faster and be more dangerous than those held outside the danger zone.


What food must be kept out of the danger zone?

Generally, all foods must be kept out of the danger zone but some food categories are at a higher risk than others. Foods such as the following are considered high-risk or potentially hazardous when kept in the danger zone:

  • Raw and cooked meat, poultry, and seafood
  • Dairy products (e.g. milk and cheeses)
  • Leafy greens and sprouts
  • Eggs and egg products
  • Starchy foods such as pasta and rice
  • Sauces
  • Fresh produce

What is high-risk food?

High-risk food is a category used to describe foods that could spoil faster than more stable ones in unfavorable conditions. These foods may require time and temperature control for food safety maintenance.


Which hot-held food is in the temperature danger zone?

If a high-risk food is held within 40°F to 140°F, then it is within the temperature danger zone for food.


Refrigerated food temperature

Refrigeration of food means keeping them in low-temperature food storage, preferably around the fridge temperature of 40°F (4°C). When cooked or raw foods are stored in this condition, the potentially present biological contamination is significantly affected. Bacterial growth is slowed down, and therefore, the shelf-life of food is extended.

Cooked food that is being held for later service must be stored at a temperature of 40°F (4°C). They are recommended to be refrigerated to prevent the risk of causing foodborne illness from rising. Use a fridge thermometer to ensure constant reading of the temperature. 

It should also be emphasized that refrigeration and a cold environment do not kill dangerous bacteria and other pathogens. All it does is slow down their growth. The lower the refrigeration temperature, the longer the shelf-life of foods can be. As such, foods must be thoroughly cooked or held properly before refrigerating. Once the foods are taken out of refrigeration, the risk of spoiling and becoming contaminated increases once again. 


food temperature for refrigerating


Cold food temperature

The lower end of the temperature danger zone for foods is considered the refrigeration range. Foods that are intended to be served chilled can be held at lower temperatures by placing the plates on ice to maintain constant low temperatures. Cold food can be held intentionally without temperature control for a maximum of six hours. This is especially true if the food came from a temperature of 41°F (5°C) or lower.

To achieve the objective of keeping foods cold, the proper temperature must be constantly held. A sharp increase in temperature can allow contaminants to grow on the food and spoil it faster. This type of cold holding is applicable for dishes such as salads with fresh fruits and vegetables. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specifically advises that salad bars must maintain a low temperature of 41°F (5°C). Especially for salads with several raw ingredients such as fresh shrimp in a jumping salad or ceviche.

One prerequisite to making chilled temperature storage effective for cooked foods is to properly process them. This means that you have to cook them to the correct temperature. When you refrigerate undercooked foods, pathogens have more chances of surviving and multiplying. Once you thaw and prepare them for reheating, the food can spoil faster during the thawing process.

Considering the information on how cold should meat be kept, refrigerating foods does not guarantee to extend their shelf-life indefinitely. Different foods still have different maximum storage times in refrigerated conditions.

Depending on the set constant temperature of the refrigerator, foods such as raw meats including beef and pork are only advised to be refrigerated for 3 to 5 days. Additionally, fresh poultry meat can only be stored in cold storage for 1 to 2 days similar to ground meat. Depending on the state of the food being refrigerated, some may last up to a week or a month.


Cooling temperature. How to rapidly cool hot foods?

When aiming for refrigerated food temperatures, you have to cool them down first. According to the FDA, foods must be cooled from 135°F to 41°F (57°C to 5°C) in the first six hours. Additionally, cooked foods must reach 70°F (21°C) in the first two hours. The purpose of this directive is to reduce the opportunity for harmful bacteria or other pathogens to grow on the food you prepared. Quickly refrigerate the food once the recommended temperature is reached.

Here are a few tricks to rapidly cool foods:

  • Divide the cooked food into smaller portions
  • Move covered foods to a colder area away from the cooking section.
  • Expose more surface area of the food in shallow and wide containers so heat can escape faster. Make sure that the food is away from potential contaminants.
  • Place food into containers and then on top of an ice bath.
  • Use dedicated blast chillers.


Remember not to put very hot food inside the refrigerator. Aside from the fact that this is not a good practice for the refrigerator's health, doing this operation can significantly decrease the temperature inside. Once the temperature of the refrigerator drops to the temperature danger zone, all other foods become at risk of spoiling.


FoodDocs food safety system-1


Reheating food temperature

Reheating food is done by subjecting food to heat again after cooling it down to room or refrigerated temperatures. This process does not only make food more palatable again but also safe. When first served, foods are at risk of becoming contaminated from the serving spoon or the environment.

Cooling or hot holding foods stop or slow the growth of pathogens that may have made their way to the food. If foods are kept within the temperature danger zone for more than 2 hours after serving, the likelihood of spoilage and causing foodborne illness significantly increases. The number of bacteria and other pathogens can increase to unsafe levels. 

Reheating can be done to chilled or frozen foods. For reheating frozen foods, they must first be defrosted. This operation helps the heat travel faster into the core of the food and ensures that the dish is reheated equally and thoroughly. Thawing must be achieved within the first 4 hours after the food was taken out of the freezer. This will help prevent dangerous bacteria from recovering and causing food spoilage.

Leftovers can be served again if they were properly stored and reheated. Reheating must be done correctly to ensure that the food is safe to serve again. This operation requires a properly calibrated food thermometer. 


How to reheat foods?

food temperature chart

Food temperature chart


Food that needs to be reheated should be heated to a minimum internal cooking temperature of 165°F (74°C). After taking out from refrigerated food temperatures, the leftover food must be reheated within the first 2 hours. Foods can be reheated in many ways and the best way to reheat food is using the following: 

  • Oven
  • Microwave
  • Stovetop


When reheating, covering the foods when possible helps redistribute the heat thoroughly. Remember that food equipment used for hot holding must never be used to reheat food. Doing this can increase the risk of the food staying in the temperature danger zone for a long time.


Below are some specific situations when it comes to reheating food that you might be interested in:

  • What temperature to reheat cold food in oven? 

When reheating leftovers in oven, foods can be reheated at a temperature of 325°F (163°C) until the food reaches the desired reheating food temperature.

  • What temperature to use when heating food in the microwave?

When reheating food in microwave, it must reach a temperature of 325°F (163°C). Before putting it inside, stir the food when applicable then cover and process. Use a food thermometer to check if the food has hit the target reheating temperature.


Find and download our free poster about reheating foods here.



The smart way to monitor temperature danger zone

The temperature danger zone for foods is a place that food handlers must always be aware of. Keeping foods at this temperature range for prolonged hours can spoil foods which can be costly for your food business. Not to mention, undetected spoiled foods can cause foodborne illnesses and damage the reputation of your restaurant. The risk of food poisoning is just a few temperatures away from the temperature danger zone. 

Restaurant food safety managers are responsible to train food handlers on the significance of this operation and how to properly perform hot and cold holding foods. As part of their training, food handlers must know how to properly monitor these operations including information on when to do it. On top of other numerous tasks involved in keeping foods away from spoiling such as food preparation, cooking, and proper hygiene.

As a food manager, ensuring that all of these tasks are properly performed to protect your consumers is a significant job to keep your business successful. The question is, is it even possible to manually do all of these food safety tasks?

With our Food Safety Management System, you do not even need to answer that question. Using our system, you can rest easy that all food safety tasks are done on time and monitored accordingly. Our digital FSMS was built specifically for food businesses to maintain compliance and protect consumers from foodborne illnesses.

Switching from a manual FSMS to a digital one does not have to be daunting. With our process, you can transition to a digital FSMS within an average of 15 minutes. All you would need to do is to answer a few questions related to your food business. Questions would involve the nature of your operations, your target customers, the expected number of customers in a day, and the like. With this information, our smart software powered by artificial intelligence will automatically create a comprehensive digital FSMS for your food business you can start using right away.


What is a digital FSMS?

At FoodDocs, the digital FSMS that our system automatically generates for you contains automatic features to help you perform food safety tasks effortlessly. Our system includes the following features:

  • Digital monitoring forms. The monitoring forms are automatically generated based on the operations of your food business. You can further customize them to further fit your everyday tasks perfectly. These monitoring forms can be set to be auto-filled by our system. The information that your system uses to fill them is based on your previous data entries, you just have to confirm the inserted data. So you can save your team's valuable time. 


  • Compatibility with sensors. When it comes to monitoring your food temperature, time is always important. Our system is compatible with smart equipment that has sensors. Information from these sensors can be automatically forwarded to your dashboard for real-time analysis and logged automatically to your digital monitoring forms. With this feature, you can address concerns when they happen right there and then. 
  • Smart notification system. Through our mobile application, our system will send intuitive notifications to the assigned food handlers regarding a food safety task that needs to be done. With this feature, no food safety task will be forgotten nor left undone. This notification system comes with a built-in "alarm clock" system that can remind food handlers to checkup on the temperature of hot or cold held foods every 2 hours or less.
  • Food safety training. With our digital FSMS, food safety managers can assign specific food safety tasks with detailed descriptions and appropriate corrective actions in case of noncompliance. With this feature, food handlers can focus on their assigned tasks alone and gain mastery. This feature can also smoothen the transition process for new staff members.
  • Real-time dashboard. You can save up to 20% of your time from micromanaging your food safety operations with our digital FSMS. Our product features a built-in dashboard that shows you your daily progress, areas that need improvement, problems that occurred, and areas that are well compliant. 
  • Cloud-based storage. We also provide dedicated cloud storage where all of your digital documents can be stored and organized. Access any record any time with ease using our system.

As mentioned, time is always of the essence when it comes to tasks that involve temperature. Pathogens can easily spoil food when they are given optimal conditions such as the temperature danger zone for foods. As such, timely alerts and constant monitoring can save your business from non-compliance and further problems. With our handy mobile application, every food safety task alert is literally at the palm of your hands. You can address them on time and never miss a task. In addition, this app can help you conveniently log information such as temperature readings and verify them without having to write anything.

Our digital FSMS can also be applied to other operations all over your food business to spot and prevent other sources of food poisoning. We can provide you with digital checklists to help you facilitate a more efficient operation. One of our objectives at FoodDocs is to make shifting to a digital FSMS platform an effective, easy, and enjoyable process for food businesses.

You do not need to spend hours of your time and loads of money on hiring a food safety consultant to draft an FSMS for you. Our digital FSMS was created by food safety experts who have years and years of experience in food safety laws and operations.

Join all of our more than 15,000 customers who are keeping their compliance by using our digital FSMS product. Try our free, 14-day trial and start your food safety journey with us today.


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