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What Temperature Is in the Danger Zone?

Olga Yastremska /123RF

Keep your food safe by storing it at the right temperature. Here’s everything you need to know on the subject.

When most people hear the words “danger zone,” they think of Kenny Loggins’ song from the movie Top Gun. But for food safety experts and trained chefs, these words have an entirely different meaning.

The “danger zone” is the temperature range from 40°F to 140°F (4.4°C to 60°C), where disease-causing bacteria grow fastest in our food. In this temperature range, the bacterial population in perishable, non-shelf-stable foods doubles every 20 minutes.

According to the USDA, food shouldn’t be left out for more than 2 hours, or pathogens will grow to dangerous levels inside it and make it unsafe to eat. When the outside temperature is 90°F (32°C) and above, this time is reduced to only 1 hour.

These bacteria include Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, and a number of other pathogens that attack the human body once inside and cause potentially life-threatening foodborne illnesses.

In the summer, do your shopping last before you go home and unpack your grocery bags as soon as you get to the kitchen.

Keep cold foods cold, refrigerated or frozen, and hot foods hot, simmering on the stove or being kept warm on the grill or in the oven, but never expose them to the danger zone for more than 1-2 hours. Otherwise, the only thing left to do from a food safety standpoint will be to throw them away.

Throw away food that’s been in the danger zone for longer than recommended. Since we cannot see, smell, or taste the bacteria that make us sick, foods that smell and taste good can just as easily be overgrown with them (and cause food poisoning).

If you’ve just cooked a meal and don’t plan to eat it all at once, don’t leave it on the stove or countertop. Instead, fill the sink with water and ice, put the food in a pot or storage container in the ice water, and let it cool so you can quickly put it in the fridge.

Don’t let leftovers sit out on the dining table for more than 1-2 hours. Put them in airtight jars or storage containers with lids and refrigerate for 3-4 days or freeze for a few months to 1 year.

Which Foods Are Affected?

The bacteria that make us sick thrive when there’s a food source, plenty of moisture, and sufficient warmth.

All perishable foods—from cut fruits and vegetables to unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses, eggs, meat, poultry, and seafood, no matter if they are raw or cooked—may contain foodborne pathogens.

(Unopened cans or jars, except for canned/jarred meats and seafood, and dried foods such as legumes, rice, and pasta can safely be stored at room temperature.)

Germs live everywhere, but they especially like to live in the soil. So fruits and vegetables that grow in, on, or near the ground can easily get contaminated with pathogenic bacteria and cause food poisoning unless thoroughly washed.

Animal muscles are sterile inside, just like in our bodies, but pathogenic bacteria can get introduced to meat, poultry, and seafood during slaughter as it very often happens. Ground meat in particular may contain pathogens, but even whole animals and animal cuts are not exempt from this rule.

Long enough exposure to high enough heat kills most of these bacteria, and their population gets reduced to a number manageable enough for our immune system to fight off. This is why all meats should be cooked thoroughly and to the minimum internal temperature recommended by the USDA for safe consumption.

Eating raw or undercooked meat, even if it’s a delicacy, is a health risk—and you should think twice about doing it if you belong to one or more of the risk groups for food poisoning.

But even thoroughly cooked meat contains some pathogenic bacteria. If the meat is exposed to the danger zone for too long, these bacteria can multiply to the point of causing disease. Within a few hours, a dozen germs can replicate into thousands; store your food safely.

Who Is at Risk of Food Poisoning?

Now that you know the dangers of food poisoning, you may be wondering… Do they really apply to you? The long answer short is yes, even if you think you have a stomach made of steel.

Anyone can get food poisoning, the CDC warns on its website, but some are at higher risk than others of getting sick and falling seriously ill. This includes adults aged 65 and older, children under 5 years of age, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women.

If you are cooking for someone who belongs in these groups, pay special attention to how you handle the food, prepare it, and bring it to the table. As home cooks, we have a special responsibility to prepare food that is not only delicious but also safe for everyone else to eat.

If you belong to one or more of the risk groups for food poisoning, prepare, order, and eat your food prudently. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the basics of food safety, and introduce the rest of your household and/or those you depend on to them.


Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained chef with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.

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