Ready-to-eat foods are just that — they’re ready to eat.
You must handle foods that are ready to eat safely so you don’t contaminate them and consequently cause foodborne illness.
This article explains everything you need to know about ready-to-eat foods and provides 5 tips to handle them safely.
Examples of ready-to-eat foods
Ready-to-eat (RTE) foods are ready to eat — they don’t require further preparation or cooking before serving.
Some RTE foods require time-temperature controls like certain desserts or salads.
Examples of RTE foods include:
- sandwiches and wraps
- hot dogs
- deli meats and cheeses
- fruits and vegetables that have been washed and cut
- bakery items like donuts and bread
- cooked rice and other grains
- pasta dishes
- raw fish like sushi
- cooked meats
- dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese
In contrast, non-RTE foods require additional preparation or cooking before they can be served.
Examples of non-RTE foods include foods like unwashed fruits and vegetables, raw animal products, and foods that require reheating.
RTE foods don’t require further preparation or cooking before they can be consumed. Examples of RTE foods include sandwiches, pizza, deli meats, and fruits and vegetables that have been washed and cut.
5 ways to keep ready-to-eat foods safe
Unsafe handling of RTE foods can lead to cross-contamination and cross-contact.
Cross-contamination occurs when a disease-causing organism called a pathogen transfers from one food to another.
1. Use a barrier
Unless in rare instances, you should never handle RTE foods with your bare hands.
This is because even with proper handwashing, pathogens can still remain on your hands.
A single-use glove is the most common barrier but you can use deli tissue, tongs, and other serving utensils as well.
2. Store on the top shelf
Store RTE foods that require refrigeration like pasta salad or washed fruit on the top shelf to prevent contamination of non-RTE foods.
For example, storing raw chicken above RTE food could lead raw chicken juices to drip on and contaminate the RTE food with Salmonella.
Here’s the proper fridge storage for food safety:
- Top shelf: RTE foods and leftovers
- Second shelf: whole cuts of seafood
- Third shelf: whole cuts of beef and pork
- Fourth shelf: ground meats and seafood
- Fifth shelf: whole and ground poultry
Don’t forget to cover and label RTE foods just as you would with other types of food.
3. Clean and sanitize
Always clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces when you switch from working with raw animal products or other non-RTE foods to RTE foods.
Food-contact surfaces are surface that comes in direct contact with food, such as cutting boards, countertops, knives, spoons and spatulas, and cutting surfaces of of food processing equipment like blenders and slices.
You can clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces using a dishwasher, three-compartment sink, or wiping cloths.
4. Maintain personal good hygiene
Maintaining good personal hygiene is important all the time to keep food safe but especially when working with RTE foods.
Follow these good personal hygiene practices:
- keep fingernails trimmed, filed, and maintained so the edges are smooth
- avoid wearing jewelry except a plain ring or wedding band
- wear clean outer clothing
- only eat, drink, or using tobacco in designated areas away from food
- wear a hair restraint, such as a hat, hair covering or net, and beard restraint
- cover infected wounds with a durable bandage
- don’t work when you’re sick
5. Maintain safe holding temperatures
Hold RTE foods at the proper temperature to prevent bacteria from multiplying and growing to unsafe numbers.
Hold hot RTE food like rice at 135ºF (57ºC) or higher, and cold RTE foods like salads and dressings at 41ºF (5ºC) or lower.
Check the temperature of hot- and cold-RTE foods at least every four hours using a calibrated food thermometer to ensure the food is not within the temperature danger zone.
To keep RTE foods safe, avoid bare hand contact, store them on the top shelf, and clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces. You should also maintain good personal hygiene and maintain hot- and cold-held RTE foods at safe temperatures.
The bottom line
RTE foods are ready-to-eat — they don’t require further preparation or cooking prior to consuming.
Examples of RTE foods include sandwiches, pizza, deli meats, and unwashed and cut fruits and vegetables.
To keep RTE foods safe, avoid bare hand contact, store them on the top shelf, and regularly clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces to prevent cross-contamination and cross-contact.
Maintaining good personal hygiene and proper hot- and cold-holding temperatures are also key to keep RTE foods safe.
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