There are multiple ways by which food becomes unsafe and leads to foodborne illness.
One of the most common reasons is time-temperature abuse.
However, you may wonder what this means, and how it contributes to foodborne illness.
This article explains everything you need to know about time-temperature abuse, including what it is and how to prevent it.
What is time-temperature abuse?
Time-temperature abuse occurs when certain foods are kept in the temperature danger zone for too long.
The temperature danger zone is the temperature range — 41ºF to 135ºF (5ºC and 57ºC) — at which bacteria growth accelerates.
Foods that are prone to time-temperature abuse are called time-temperature control for safety (TCS) foods.
TCS foods offer the perfect nutritious environment for bacterial growth.
- dairy products like cheese and milk
- meats, poultry, and seafood
- cooked plant foods, like pasta, rice, potatoes, and tofu
- cut melons, tomatoes, carrots, and leafy greens
- garlic-in-oil mixtures
- raw seed sprouts
- certain ready-to-eat foods like cooked pizza
If you allow TCS foods to become time-temperature abused by keeping them in the temperature danger zone for too long, bacteria begin to grow and multiply rapidly.
Serving this food can then make your customers seriously sick — especially those who are highly susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
Foods that don’t require time-temperature controls are less prone to spoilage, and include products such as:
- uncooked rice or pasta
- unprepared or uncut fruits and vegetables
- air-cooled hard-boiled eggs and pasteurized eggs with shells
Time-temperature abuse occurs when foods that require time and temperature controls such as animal products are kept in the temperature danger zone for too long.
How to prevent time-temperature abuse
Time-temperature abuse can occur at any point during food flow — the path food takes from receiving and storage through preparation, cooking, holding, serving, cooling, and reheating.
Therefore, it’s important to know how time-temperature abuse can occur at each point, and what you can do to prevent it.
The first thing you should do upon receiving a food order is to temp the cold food to make sure the items are 41ºF (5ºC) or below.
However, you can receive certain TCS foods like live shellfish, milk, and eggs at a slightly higher temperature.
You should also check frozen items for signs of time-temperature abuse, such as the presence if ice crystals or water or fluid stains on the packaging.
These could be signs that the food was allowed to thaw and then refreeze.
Store TCS foods in the refrigerator or freezer.
Time-temperature abuse occurs if your cold storage units don’t maintain a safe temperature.
Keep your refrigerators at 41ºF (5ºC) or below, and your freezers cold enough to keep food frozen solid, usually around 0ºF (-18ºC).
You should have a thermometer in each cold storage unit. Monitor and record the temperature of each unit twice daily.
Don’t forget to store food in the refrigerator and freezer safely too.
Cooking and preparation
Cooking makes food taste good, but it also keeps it safe.
Before cooking, you usually need to prep items.
The total time in which food spends at room temperature — the temperature danger zone — while prepping should not exceed four hours.
Keep this in mind when preparing large amounts of food.
If you need to thaw foods, there are only three ways to thaw TCS food safely to avoid time-temperature abuse:
- in a cooler at 41ºF (5ºC)
- under cold running water
- in a microwave at 50% power
After prepping, it’s time to cook.
Always cook food to their safe minimum internal temperature to destroy or reduce bacteria to safe levels.
Holding and service
After cooking, it’s common to hold food for serving.
Hold hot foods at 135ºF (57ºC) or above, and cold foods at 41ºC (5ºC) or below.
Time-temperature abuse occurs when you hold food outside these ranges.
Always use a food thermometer to make sure the food is maintaining a safe temperature, not the temperature gauge that may be present on the hot- or cold-holding equipment.
Monitor the temps at least every four hours, but ideally every two hours so you can recondition the food to make it safe again if it slips into the temperature danger zone.
If you notice the food is within the temperature danger zone, you must toss it if it has been four hours or longer.
When serving food, remember to use the proper dispensing equipment, and never touch ready-to-eat foods with your bare hands.
Whether you cooked food for a different meal or you have leftover hot-held food, it’s important to cool it properly.
Time-temperature abuse can occur if you can’t cool the food quick enough.
To cool foods safely and quickly, follow the two-stage cooling process.
In the first stage, cool food from 135ºF (57ºC) to 70ºF (21ºC) within two hours, and then from 70ºF (21ºC) to 41ºF (5ºC) within four hours.
To speed up the cooling process, use shallow pans for dense or liquid items, or cut thick items into smaller pieces.
If you reheat previously cooked TCS food for later service, you must heat it to an internal temperature of 165ºF (74ºC) for at least 15 seconds.
This will kill any bacteria that may have grown during the cooling process or during storage.
For commercially processed and packaged ready-to-eat soup concentrates, reheat them to at least 135ºF (57ºC) for 15 seconds.
Because time-temperature abuse can occur at any point during food flow, it’s important to know how you can prevent it to keep your customers safe from foodborne illnesses.
The bottom line
Time-temperature abuse occurs anytime you allow TCS food to stay in the temperature danger zone for too long.
Time-temperature abuse is one of the most common reasons food becomes unsafe and leads to foodborne illnesses, so it’s important to know how to prevent it at each point of food flow.
Get Our Food Safety Newsletter
Be among the first to know when we release new courses and articles.