Food safety is very important both at home and in food establishments. If not handled safely, what is supposed to be a mouth-watering and healthy meal can quickly become hazardous. CDC estimates that about one in six people gets sick, and 3,000 people die from foodborne illness yearly in the United States.
Besides health risks, poor food safety can also lead to negative inspection ratings, fines, and lawsuits in the restaurant industry. Fortunately, clear and effective guidelines can help handle food correctly and avoid foodborne illnesses. This quick and easy guide will outline all the necessary information for handling Time and Temperature Control for Safety (TCS) food.
What Is TCS Food?
Nearly every food has the potential to support pathogens. But, certain foods are more likely to support pathogenic microorganism growth easily. These foods carry a higher health risk if not handled correctly and are referred to as “Time/Temperature Control for Safety food” or “TCS food.”
In other words, FDA defines TCS food as any food that requires particular temperature and time controls to limit the growth of pathogens and formation of toxins.
Time and temperature control for safety food (TCS food) is also known as Potentially Hazardous Food (PHF). If the growth of the illness-causing bacteria in these foods is not controlled, the foods can become hazardous. To ensure food safety, learning how to identify and properly handle TSC foods is important. This guide will clearly explain what you need to do, when and how, and why it’s important.
What Are Some Examples of TCS Food?
Which food is considered a TCS food? TCS foods can be ready-to-eat foods or raw plant and animal food. TCS foods typically have high carbohydrate and protein levels, contain moisture and are either neutral or slightly acidic.
Here is the most common TCS food list according to the FDA food code:
- Raw or heat-treated animal food
- Cut leafy greens and cooked vegetables
- Sliced tomatoes and melons
- Eggs and dairy products
- Fish and shellfish
- Cut garlic in oil mixtures
- Cream or custard
- Potato dishes
- Protein-rich plants
- Raw seed sprouts
- Raw or heat-treated plant food
What Is Temperature Control in Food Safety, and Why Is Time/Temperature Control in Food Important?
Bacteria require certain conditions to grow and produce illness-causing toxins. Temperature and time are some of the crucial factors in bacteria growth. Bacteria multiply rapidly at certain temperatures (41° and 135° Fahrenheit). This temperature range effectively promotes the rapid growth of harmful microorganisms and is therefore referred to as the temperature danger zone.
Time is also a crucial factor in the growth of harmful microorganisms. When TCS foods are left at the temperature danger zone for long, they quickly become bacteria breeding grounds, making the food unsafe for consumption. When the bacteria have enough nutrients, moisture, and warmth, they can double in numbers every 20 minutes. Leave them for hours, and the bacteria count will be at dangerous levels.
How To Keep TCS Foods Safe
Time and temperature controls are the best way to keep TCS foods safe. Wherever possible, keep TCS food out of the temperature danger zone (41–135° F). Sure, TCS foods will pass through the temperature danger zone at times, particularly when cooling and reheating, but minimizing the amount of time spent in this range is crucial for food safety.
Food temperature can be controlled by freezing, refrigeration, or holding. Here are some vital steps to take in keeping TCS food safe:
- Get food supplies only from approved and reputable suppliers because if you receive unsafe food, nothing you do will make it safe.
- Check food temperature when receiving it:
- Cold TCS food should be at 41°F (5°C) or lower unless otherwise specified.
- Frozen food must be frozen solid.
- Hot TCS food should be at 135°F (57°C) or higher.
- Refrigerate or freeze food until it’s time to prepare it.
- Monitor the food temperature at intervals.
- Date mark any TCS food held longer than 24 hours.
- Cook and hold cooked food to the appropriate temperature. The ideal minimum internal temperature and timing differ for different foods.
How Long Can You Leave TSC Food Out?
Prepared TCS foods are safe to consume within four hours. If temperature controls are not applied, the food should not be consumed after four hours. Cold foods below 70° Fahrenheit can be served within six hours.
TCS Holding Temperatures
Holding food at the correct temperature effectively controls the growth of bacteria in TCS food. Here are the Time/Temperature guidelines for TCS foods for food safety:
- Maintain cold TCS food at 41℉ or lower.
- Hold hot foods at 135℉ or above.
- Store ready-to-eat TCS food at 41°F (5°C) or lower for a maximum of seven days.
- Check the food temperature every four hours.
- Discard any food, not at 41ºF or lower or 135ºF or higher for more than four hours.
- Maintain frozen foods at temperatures that keep them frozen.
- Throw out any TCS food left in the dangerous temperature zone for more than four hours.
Cooling TCS Foods
It’s important to cool TCS Food quickly. According to the FDA Food Code, TCS food should be cooled in a two-stage cooling process:
- First, cool from 135° to 70° degrees Fahrenheit in two hours or less
- Then cool the food from 70° to 40° Fahrenheit within four hours or less.
Overall, the total cooling time shouldn’t exceed six hours. Large food batches can be cooled by dividing the food into smaller amounts or containers. If you attempt to cool them in one large container in the refrigerator or cooler, the food may not cool fast enough, which will keep the food in the temperature danger zone for too long. The containers should remain open when cooling but remember to cover them once cooling is over.
You should never cool TCS food at room temperature. Some of the best methods for cooling foods include:
- Cold water as a food ingredient, for example, in soups and stews.
- Ice paddle
- Ice-water bath
- Blast or tumble chiller
Warming TCS Foods
Illness-causing pathogens can multiply quickly to unsafe levels during holding, reheating, and cooling. Reheating food safely can minimize the growth of foodborne pathogens.
Food meant to be served immediately can be reheated at any temperature. However, food that’s being reheated for hot holding should be reheated to 165° Fahrenheit or higher for 15 seconds within two hours. It’s also important to use the right cooking or rethermalizing equipment, such as an oven, stove, or microwave to ensure the reheating is done quickly enough. Reheating food for hot holding in warming trays may not warm the food fast enough and may lead to the increased growth of pathogens.
What Is Not Considered TCS Food?
Non-TCS or Non-Potentially Hazardous Food (non-PHF) is food that doesn’t support the growth of harmful bacteria. Examples of Non-TCS include dry cereals and other dry foods.
It’s worth noting that foods that do not support growth, even if they contain pathogens or physical or chemical health hazards, are not categorized as TCS foods.
Are Sliced Tomatoes a TCS Food?
Yes. Cut tomatoes are considered a Potentially Hazardous Food, except when specified otherwise, because they support the growth of harmful microorganisms.
If you want a simple way to determine whether a particular food requires Time/Temperature Control for Safety, check the FDA’s Job Aid.
What Is the Hot Holding Temperature for TCS Foods?
The FDA Food Code recommends maintaining all properly cooked hot TCS food at 135°F or above.
What Is the Maximum Time Food Can Be in the Danger Zone?
Pathogens grow most rapidly in the temperature danger range of 41°F to 135°F (5°C and 57°C) and double in numbers every 20 minutes. TCS food should not be held in the danger zone for more than four hours. If the temperature exceeds 90 °F, consider throwing out the food after one hour.
When Is TCS Food Considered To Be Temperature Abused?
There are times when TCS food is considered to be temperature abused, for instance, when it is:
- Cooked at the incorrect internal cooking temperature.
- Held at an incorrect temperature.
- Cooled or heated incorrectly.
Foodborne illnesses are avoidable when food, particularly TCS food, is handled correctly. Time/Temperature Control foods are foods that have a higher risk of supporting the growth of harmful bacteria and require time and temperature controls to limit the growth to unsafe levels. Common TCS foods include cut leafy greens, cooked rice, sprout seeds, meat, and meat products. Some of the ways to prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms in TCS food include:
- Receiving inspected food correctly.
- Storing food in the right conditions.
- Cooking food at the proper temperature.
- Checking food temperature regularly and maintaining temperature logs.
- Holding at the right temperature and timing.
- Reheating and cooling foods correctly.