At room temperature, bacteria that cause foodborne illness tend to thrive. There is a specific temperature range that we call the temperature danger zone. That range is between 41 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit. At 41 degrees or colder, most bacteria are too cold to multiply quickly. At and above 135 degrees, foodborne bacteria get too hot to multiply. Food that needs temperature control (like meat) can cause foodborne illness if it spends too long in the danger zone.
That’s why we use equipment like refrigerators and heat lamps to "hold" food at a safe temperature. But did you know that most facilities struggle with temperature control during holding? According to studies from the US Food and Drug Administration, over 75 percent of restaurants and delis inspected have at least one problem with holding temperatures. The most common item out of compliance is refrigeration temperatures.
These compliance issues can (and do) lead to foodborne illness outbreaks. So what can you do to help ensure that food is held at safe temperatures?
First, make sure that your refrigerator is set to 41 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Start by checking the fridge thermometer, of course. Ideally, the thermometer should be situated in the warmest part of the refrigeration unit (usually by the door). But don’t rely on the refrigerator thermometer. You should also use a handheld thermometer to check the temperature of refrigerated food from time to time. That way, you’ll know if you can trust the fridge thermometer.
You should also take care not to obstruct airflow throughout the refrigerator. Don’t overload the unit, and never line the shelves. Refrigerators rely on airflow to keep their contents cold.
Another option for cold holding food in your establishment is to set cold foods on ice. If you do, make sure that the ice is made from drinking water. You should also place a clean dish between the food and the ice. There are a few exceptions: you can store packaged food, whole fruits, and raw vegetables directly on the ice. Once ice has been used for cold holding, you should never use it to chill anyone’s drinks.
Inspectors observe fewer violations with hot holding, but it’s still important to verify that hot-held foods stay at or above 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Take the temperature of hot-held food often, preferably in more than one place. Again, do not rely entirely on the holding equipment’s temperature gauge. Use a food thermometer to take the food’s internal temperature. And don’t stir the food until after you measure the temperature! Stirring it first might cause you to miss pockets of food that have dropped into the temperature danger zone. If the food remains at or above 135 degrees, you can stir it to even the temperature.
— Katie Heil
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