In culinary school, this class took weeks. Painful weeks. We were all dying to get into the kitchen so every day we spent talking about foodborne illnesses and the “Food Temperature Danger Zone” were torture. However, this is an incredibly important topic that must be covered before we move on. It also happens to be the topic that arises most when people find out I’m a chef.

All the information we cover in culinary school derives from the ServSafe program. ServSafe is a national food safety program that is recognized by the Department of Health in all 50 states. The standards set by ServSafe are the standards all restaurants must adhere to and are enforced by local health agencies during restaurant inspections. A lot of the information isn’t necessary for home cooks so we’ll skip over it. For example, you don’t need to worry about air gaps over drains, how to test your sanitizer water, or what type of base coving to install. For that reason, I narrowed down the information and we’ll cover it over the next two posts. To be clear, this information is not based on my opinions, it’s a paraphrase of ServSafe guidelines.

Why Sanitation is Important
Everyone has experienced food poisoning. Some have had it worse than others but I’m willing to bet we’ve all had at least a little case of the McGurgles. Food poisoning is the result of a foodborne illness. Foodborne illnesses can be as minor as a belly ache or a couple rushed trips to the powder room but can also be extremely serious and even life-threatening. There are three causes of foodborne illness; viruses, parasites, and bacteria.

Viruses are hosted by people, not food, so the best way to prevent spreading them is to not prepare food when you’re sick. Consider this your card for getting out of cooking when you’re under the weather.

Parasites are a little trickier. They’re hosted in the intestines of humans and animals and are passed to food and beverages through unsafe handling. A lot of food recalls made throughout the country are because of parasites so you can prevent exposure if you pay attention to recalls on the news. The other way to prevent foodborne illness from parasites is to wash your hands thoroughly (for 20 seconds) after using the restroom.

Bacteria is the third cause of foodborne illness. The kind of bacteria we’ll focus on are the harmful kinds that form on what ServSave refers to as TCS foods, or foods that require time and temperature control safety. Here is a list of TCS foods:

  • Milk and dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Meat (including, but not limited to: beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fish, shellfish, and crustaceans)
  • Baked potatoes
  • Heat-treated plant food: rice, beans, and vegetables (after they’ve been cooked)
  • Tofu or other types of soy protein
  • Sliced melons and cut tomatoes
  • Sprouts
  • Untreated garlic and oil mixtures
  • All prepared foods (sauces, mixed salads such as potato salad, pasta dishes, etc.)

Temperature Danger Zone:  41º – 135ºF (5º – 57ºC)
Bacteria produce at a much faster rate while in the Temperature Danger Zone (not to be confused with the highway to the Danger Zone). When bacteria are rapidly producing over an extended period, protein toxins form. Cooking food to specific temperatures (listed below) will kill the bacteria but they won’t kill the toxins that form inside your food, that’s why it’s important to follow food safety guidelines with all refrigerated products. ServSafe says TCS foods are safe in the Temperature Danger Zone for 4 hours. And for the record, a dented can also produces protein toxins and are just as dangerous as food left in the Temperature Danger Zone for 4+ hours.

That means TCS foods must be stored below 41º (in the refrigerator or freezer) or hot held over 135º (on the stove, or in the oven or crock pot, for example). I decided to make a list of acceptable and unacceptable practices regarding the Temperature Danger Zone.

Perfectly Safe:

  • A plate of food held in the oven set at at least 150ºF for a family member running late for dinner
  • Holiday ham left out for everyone to nibble on for 2 hours after dinner
  • Queso in the crock pot set to low during the entire Super Bowl party
  • Tomatoes sliced before the cookout and stored in the refrigerator

Probably shouldn’t eat:

  • A storage container full of cantaloupe left on a picnic table all day at the 4th of July party
  • Bruschetta prepared at 6pm and left out until after your guests go home at 11pm
  • A chuck roast you set out to thaw one evening and found still on the counter when you poured your morning coffee
  • Milk that you forgot to carry in from the car after work… six hours later

For the record, the chances of the average healthy adult getting sick after violating the Temperature Danger Zone with TCS foods is pretty low. But I’ve done my part in educating you so it’s on you if you go ahead and cook that pot roast!

Internal Meat Temperatures
I shared my Guide to Internal Meat Temperatures a couple posts ago but it’s worth sharing again. Since different kinds of bacteria form on different kinds of meats, they all have to be cooked to different temperatures to ensure safe consumption. Undercooking runs the risk of not killing the bacteria, overcooking makes for a lackluster dinner that requires really sharp knives (and sharp teeth). Print this guide and post it on your fridge or inside your spice cabinet for easy access.

Here’s the printer friendly version: Internal Meat Temperature Guide

**Update: Here are some prettier ones, in both gray and white.
Printable Meat Temperature Guide – Gray
Printable Meat Temperature Guide – White

Inevitably, plenty of you will ignore my warnings and still cook your chicken to 180º “just to be safe” but 165º is the safe temperature endorsed by the USDA. While the above guide is not part of the ServSafe course, these temperatures are universally used in restaurants. Here are the minimum temperatures for safe consumption listed on the USDA website:

Beef, pork, lamb, and veal steaks, chops, and roasts                145ºF

Ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal                                           160ºF

All poultry                                                                                165ºF

Cooking your meat below the USDA standards, just like violating the Temperature Danger Zone, increases the risk of foodborne illness (but it’s a risk I’m personally willing to take because I love medium rare steak!).

One more random thought and we’ll be done for today. It’s really important to contact your local health department if you think you have food poisoning. Depending on the how far the protein toxins have progressed, you’ll see symptoms as early as an hour from consumption to as long as 48 hours (meaning you didn’t necessarily get it from the last food you ate). If you contracted it from a restaurant or from food purchased at a grocery store, chances are you aren’t the only one suffering. They’ll investigate all foods you’ve consumed in a 48-hour period and if they find multiple people getting sick from the same source, they can fix the problem.

Have you reached your food safety capacity for the day? This is a lot of information so we’ll pick back up on Sanitation in the next post. See you then!

Next Post: Food Safety & Sanitation, Part 2: Storing Food
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