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November Cartoon: How Long You Can Leave Food Out
Moldy pumpkin TCS food

Time/Temperature Control for Safety (TCS) foods require more effort and attention than other, more shelf-stable foods. Because they provide bacteria with the right conditions to thrive, it’s important you know how to store and use them to avoid getting sick.

Bacteria need food, like carbohydrates or protein, and moisture. They grow best at room temperature, although some bacteria (like Listeria) can thrive at refrigeration temperatures as well. As their name suggests, TCS foods use either time or temperature to help control the amount of bacteria that can grow.

What is a TCS food?

TCS foods are usually high in moisture and have carbohydrates or protein that bacteria can eat. Some common TCS foods include:

  • Milk and milk products, like cheese and yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish
  • Cooked foods like vegetables, rice, and potatoes
  • Raw sprouts and cut leafy greens
  • Cut melons
  • Cut tomatoes
  • Garlic in oil

Use this poster to help you know if you should take extra precautions to keep your food safe!

How long can I keep food out?

In general, TCS foods should be kept out of the ideal temperature zone where bacteria can thrive. This is called the Temperature Danger Zone. That zone is from 41°F to 135°F (5°C to 57°C). A good rule of thumb: keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. If you don’t have the equipment to do so, use time as a control measure to keep food safe.

TCS foods can be left at room temperature for four hours after removing it from the hot or cold equipment. After four hours, food should be thrown away. Eating it or trying to save it for later can be dangerous. Why the four-hour rule? That’s the amount of time it takes bacteria to grow to unsafe levels.

Cold foods may be left out for six hours as long as the food does not get over 70°F (21°C). If you choose not to check the temperature often or the food gets warmer than 70°F (21°C), use the four-hour rule and throw it away after that time.

If I leave food out too long, can I cook or freeze it to kill the bacteria?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: if food is left out too long in the Temperature Danger Zone, bacteria can reach unsafe levels. Although cooking or freezing could kill some of those pathogens, it would not get rid of all of them and could still make you or those you are cooking for very sick.

In addition, some bacteria can create spores that can withstand cold or hot temperatures. If ingested, those spores can cause foodborne illness.

How long can I store TCS foods?

Generally, TCS foods or meals made with them will stay safe for about seven days, although the quality of the food may not be as good. If you are making a meal, like a casserole, that uses food you have previously cooked or cut up, the seven days starts when that older food was prepared. If you are unsure of when something was cooked, or it has an off odor or color, throw the food away.

For more information about how to cook safely at home, you can take our Home Kitchens course, free for a limited time! Other food safety tips can be found on our website at statefoodsafety.com.

— Janilyn Hutchings

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