Proper food storage plays an essential role in keeping you safe and healthy.
Improper storage of products such as meat, seafood, and milk may lead to the growth of pathogens that can make you sick (
But how do you know whether you’re storing your food at the right temperature?
This article explores the temperature “danger zone” and offers you tips on proper food storage.
The temperature danger zone refers to a temperature range in which bacteria grow and thrive.
According to the USDA, this range is 40–140°F (4–60°C) (2).
Within this temperature range, bacteria can double in number in just 20 minutes (2).
Storing perishable foods at the right temperatures in your refrigerator and freezer can prevent the growth of bacteria. Plus, by cooking your food well, you can kill the most harmful bacteria (
It’s important to keep perishable foods above 140°F or below 40°F (greater than 60°C or less than 4°C) to prevent the growth of harmful pathogens.
The temperature danger zone is the temperature range of 40–140°F (4.4–60°C). Bacteria and pathogens thrive in this temperature range.
Though some food safety experts ensure you that certain nonperishable foods can be stored at room temperature without spoiling, you need to keep many foods within a safe temperature range to prevent bacteria growth.
Perishable foods may become unsafe to eat if stored at temperatures above 40°F (4.4°C) — which could happen if you store them in any part of your kitchen other than your fridge or freezer.
These foods must be stored under a certain temperature to keep you safe.
|Storage temperature||Safe minimum internal cooking temperature|
|Poultry||40°F (4.4°C) or below, or frozen at 0°F (-17.7°C) or below||165°F (73.8°C)|
|Leftovers (stuffing, casseroles, etc.)||40°F (4.4°C) or below, or frozen at 0°F (-17.7°C) or below||165°F (73.8°C)|
|Egg dishes||40°F (4.4°C) or below, or frozen at 0°F (-17.7°C) or below||160°F (71.1°C)|
|Ground meat||40°F (4.4°C) or below, or frozen at 0°F (-17.7°C) or below||160°F (71.1°C)|
|Beef, pork, lamb, veal, steaks, and chops||40°F (4.4°C) or below, or frozen at 0°F (-17.7°C) or below||145°F (62.8°C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes|
|Ham, fresh or smoked (uncooked)||40°F (4.4°C) or below, or frozen at 0°F (-17.7°C) or below||145°F (62.8°C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes|
|Fish and shellfish||40°F (4.4°C) or below, or frozen at 0°F (-17.7°C) or below||145°F (62.8°C)|
|Dairy products||40°F (4.4°C) or below, or frozen at 0°F (-17.7°C) or below||N/A|
|Most fresh fruits and vegetables||40°F (4.4°C) or below, or frozen at 0°F (-17.7°C) or below||N/A|
Keep in mind that each perishable item can be kept at refrigerated temperatures of 40°F (4.4°C) or below for a limited time.
For example, food safety experts recommend that you keep fresh poultry in the refrigerator for a maximum of 2 days, while raw eggs in the shell can be kept in the refrigerator for a maximum of 5 weeks (7).
Perishable foods should be kept in your refrigerator or freezer to reduce the risk of bacterial growth. These foods last in the refrigerator for only a limited amount of time before they spoil, so it’s important to keep track of your food and how you store it.
Thousands of types of bacteria are present in your everyday environment, including on the foods you eat.
However, not all bacteria are harmful.
Only certain types of bacteria pose risks to your health. These are known as pathogens (9).
When your food isn’t cooked properly or stored properly, you risk consuming food that may be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.
Eating food contaminated with pathogenic bacteria can make you sick.
Some of the most common foodborne pathogens are Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli (
Symptoms of food poisoning caused by E. coli may include severe stomach pain, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and mild fever.
E. coli infections often resolve within 10 days, yet these pathogens may cause serious illness — even death in some cases (
Salmonella is another common foodborne pathogen that can grow if foods like eggs and poultry are improperly stored or handled.
In addition, if you eat raw or undercooked shellfish, you may risk infection from Vibrio bacteria.
Vibrio bacteria, which live in coastal ecosystems, can infect you through your food. This may cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting (
Listeria monocytogenes is another pathogenic bacteria that you may encounter in ready-to-eat foods such as deli meats, hot dogs, and deli salads (9).
As you can see, many bacteria can cause foodborne illness. Even though most cases of food poisoning are mild and resolve within days, some cases may cause severe complications or even death.
Remember that you may develop food poisoning from these pathogens if food is stored or cooked incorrectly. You can get food poisoning at home or when out at a restaurant — proper storage remains paramount wherever you go.
Everyone has some risk for developing a foodborne illness. However, certain populations are at higher risk of experiencing serious complications (9).
The populations most at risk of developing serious complications related to foodborne illnesses are (9):
- older adults
- infants and young children
- pregnant people
- immunocompromised people, such as those with health conditions such as HIV and cancer
These populations have a greater risk of developing serious complications after infection with foodborne pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes (9).
For example, in order to avoid infection with Listeria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that people who are pregnant or immunocompromised eat foods such as hot dogs or deli meats only if they’ve been reheated to 165°F (73.8°C) or are steaming hot (9).
Infection with Listeria monocytogenes may be deadly to these populations and may lead to pregnancy complications such as miscarriages (9).
For all these reasons, doctors recommend that pregnant people avoid high risk foods such as raw shellfish, deli salads, and raw meat.
Though developing severe illness through contaminated foods may be rare, you should consider your safety and follow recommendations for food storage and handling to keep your risk low.
Consuming improperly stored or cooked food can make you sick. Certain populations, such as people who are pregnant or immunocompromised, have a greater risk of developing severe complications from foodborne illness.
While it’s impossible to prevent all exposure to potential foodborne pathogens, you can take actionable steps to keep your food safe to eat.
Here are some easy ways to ensure that you’re safely storing and cooking food at home (2):
- Keep hot food hot. Keep hot food at or above 140°F (60°C).
- Keep cold food cold. Keep cold food at or below 40°F (4°C).
- Cook meat, seafood, and poultry properly. Always cook meat and other perishables to a safe internal temperature.
- Take care with leftovers. Refrigerate leftovers at 40°F (4°C) or below within 2 hours of cooking.
- Reheat safely. Reheat food to an internal temperature of 165°F (73.8°C), or until hot and steaming, before eating.
- Monitor storage temperatures. Keep your refrigerator and freezer at the appropriate temperatures of 40°F (4.4°C) or below and 0°F (-17.7°C) or below, respectively.
- Use sealed containers. Opt for glass or plastic storage containers with seals to keep fridge bacteria out of your food.
As you can see, keeping perishable food out of the danger zone is essential to reduce your risk of foodborne illness.
In addition to the main tips above, remember to wash your hands and sanitize kitchen surfaces to prevent cross contamination.
You can take many steps to reduce your risk of foodborne illness. Keep foods out of the danger zone by storing them at proper temperatures to prevent pathogen growth.
The danger zone is the temperature range of 40–140°F (4–60°C), in which bacteria grow and thrive.
Keeping perishable foods out of the danger zone is critical to keeping your food safe.
Keep your hot foods hot and your cold foods cold. Cook your perishable foods to safe internal temperatures to prevent foods from staying stuck in the danger zone.
Just one thing
One of the easiest ways to prevent foodborne illness is to frequently wash your hands and sanitize work surfaces in your kitchen. To wash your hands properly (14):
- Wet your hands with clean water.
- Lather with soap.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
- Rinse your hands thoroughly with clean water.
- Dry your hands with a clean towel.