How to avoid the temperature danger zone

Knowing the correct temperatures involved in cooking, holding and storing food is a critical step in avoiding foodborne illness.

Grilled meat and corn dishes with salad on a table.

The temperature danger zone, when it comes to food safety, describes a temperature range at which bacteria grow most quickly on food. Food should be kept out of this danger zone as much as possible to prevent the growth of potentially harmful germs.

Today, that temperature range is 40 degrees Fahrenheit (the maximum temperature a refrigerator should be) to 140 degrees F (the minimum temperature hot food should be kept at for an extended period of time). This temperature range has changed over the years, and even today, there is some question over the usefulness of this range. So how much should you care?

How important is the temperature danger zone?

In the world of bacteria, there is no “one size fits all rule.” There are many factors besides temperature that influence whether or not bacteria grow on food. These include moisture content, salt level and acidity. However, temperature is one of the main factors that we can control.    

  • 55 to 85 degrees F (Dangerous): Food can become dangerous in several hours.
  • 85 to 115 degrees F (Very Dangerous): Food could become dangerous in as little as a couple hours if other factors (mentioned previously) are ideal for bacterial growth.
  • 115 to 125 degrees F (Dangerous): Food can become dangerous in several hours.

Foods stored just above proper refrigerator temperature (warmer than 40 degrees F) and just under hot holding temperature (cooler than 140 degrees F) may become dangerous in a few days.

Keep in mind refrigeration does not kill any bacteria that may already be on food but proper handling and refrigeration helps prevent further growth and spread of potentially harmful bacteria.

Use a thermometer

Keeping food in the middle section of the temperature danger zone can be very risky, but as you go out from the middle temperature range, the risk lowers because conditions becomes increasingly less ideal for bacterial growth. This doesn’t, however, mean that it’s a good idea to turn your fridge up to 50 degrees F to save on energy bills because you are significantly increasing your risk of foodborne illness when food is stored at those temperatures over a long period of time (days rather than hours). Michigan State University Extension recommends keeping a thermometer on the door of your fridge to monitor proper temperature of cold-stored foods, and to use a calibrated food thermometer to check the proper internal temperature of cooked foods.

Remember, there is more than one factor contributing to bacterial growth that can lead to foodborne illness. If proper food safety practices such as handwashing are not followed and there is a large amount of bacteria on the food to begin with, the temperature you store or hold it at may not even matter.

Do you want to learn more?

To help people be healthy at every stage of life, Michigan State University Extension delivers affordable, relevant, evidence-based education to serve the needs of adults, youth and families in urban and rural communities.

Our programs cover all areas of health, from buying and preparing nutritious, budget-friendly food to managing stress, preventing or living well with diabetes and optimal aging – MSU Extension has the information you need in a format you can use, in-person and online. Contact your local MSU Extension county office to find a class near you.

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