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May Cartoon: How Long Can TCS Food Stay Out?
TCS food vultures

In the food safety world, perishable foods have a special name: Time/temperature Control for Safety, or TCS, food.

Like the name suggests, TCS food needs time or temperature control measures to keep bacteria from growing to dangerous levels. Usually, hot foods should be kept at 135°F (57°C) or hotter and cold foods should be kept at 41°F (5° C) or colder. But it may not always be possible to hold food at these temperatures or to take the temperature often enough to ensure it stays in those ranges. If that’s true for your workplace, you’ll need to pay close attention to the amount of time a food spends in the temperature danger zone.

Which foods are TCS?

TCS foods are typically moist and include food for bacteria, like carbohydrates or protein. These types of foods include, but are not limited to:

  • Meat and meat products
  • Cut leafy greens
  • Sliced melons
  • Cooked vegetables, including potatoes
  • Eggs and milk (and any products they are in)

Bacteria that grow on these foods thrive when the temperature is warm, usually between about 41° F (5° C) and 135° F (57° C). This temperature range is usually referred to as the temperature danger zone. Keeping hot foods hot (above 135° F) and cold foods cold (below 41° F) can keep these bacteria from growing.

Although keeping foods hot or cold can also kill some of the bacteria, it will not kill all of it. If you eat food that has been at room temperature for too long, it could make you sick even if you cook it.

How long can TCS food be left out?

Given the right circumstances, TCS foods have all the elements bacteria need to thrive. If TCS food is left without temperature control for four hours, bacteria can grow to dangerous levels that would likely cause foodborne illness. Once four hours have passed, food should be thrown away. Keep track of the time on a time keeping log or mark the container of the food so you know when to throw it away.

One exception to the four-hour rule is with cold-held food. If the food doesn’t get hotter than 70°F (21°C), it can stay out for six hours. But if it does reach more than 70°F (21°C), it follows the four-hour rule and must be thrown away after that time has passed (or immediately after it reaches that temperature, if it’s already been out four hours).

What if I’m cooling food to use later?

When you are cooling food, you must use time and temperature to ensure food does not stay in the temperature danger zone for too long. The best way to cool food is by using the two-stage cooling process. As the name suggests, food should be cooled and monitored in two stages:

  • Stage 1: Cool food from 135°F to 70°F (57°C to 21°C) in two hours or less
  • Stage 2: Cool food from 70°F to 41°F (21°C to 5°C) in four hours or less

You can cool food faster by dividing the food into smaller containers, loosely covering it as it cools, and using an ice paddle or ice as an ingredient (best done in soups or other liquid foods). If the food is not cooled to these specific temperatures in the allotted time, you will need to discard it.

Following these simple guidelines can keep you and your customers safe. For more information and other food safety tips, visit

— Janilyn Hutchings

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