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Saturday, 25 April 2015

Food Safety tips - How to avoid the DANGER ZONE

Safe cooking temperatures and the Danger Zone. Avoid eating raw and undercooked meat.

by Jim Chan.

Food poisoning or Foodborne illness 
An illness that results from eating food contaminated by harmful microorganisms. Bacteria are the most common cause of food poisoning, but food poisoning can be caused by other causes include viruses, parasites, toxins and contaminants such as chemicals. The best way to avoid food poisoning is to follow basic food safety steps.

Why temperature control is important in food safety?
One of the critical factors in controlling pathogens in food is proper temperature control. 
Disease-causing microorganisms such as bacteria grow very slowly at low temperatures (4 °C/40 °F or lower), multiply rapidly in mid-range temperatures ( °C/41 ºF to 60 °C/140 ºF), and are killed at high temperatures (60 °C/140 ºF or higher). 

For safety, always keep 'cold food cold' and 'hot food hot'. Perishable or hazardous foods must be held at cold or hot temperatures to inhibit bacterial growth and food must be cooked to temperatures high enough to kill harmful microorganisms before eating. 

What is the Danger Zone?
The temperatures in between °C/41 ºF to 60 °C/140 ºF are in the Danger Zone. When perishable or hazardous food is left in the Danger Zone, bacteria can grow very fast and produce toxins that can cause food poisoning (most toxins from pathogens are heat stable and cannot be destroyed by regular cooking temperature).

Food safety while cooking?
Cooking food to the proper internal temperature kills harmful bacteria and prevent food
poisoning. The best way to ensure the food is cooked to the proper internal temperature is to use a probe thermometer.

There are different types of food thermometers in retail stores, but the best is to use a metal stem or digital thermometer to check the internal temperatures to ensure the food is properly cooked all the way inside.
How to use a probe thermometer?
  • Clean and sanitize the probe thermometer first
  • To get a more accurate temperature, insert the probe thermometer in several parts of the meat. Always insert in the thickest part of the meat and the probe should not touch bone inside.
  • Check the internal temperature for at least 15 seconds to get a true temperature.
  • Always clean and sanitize the probe thermometer after use and before checking a different food item to avoid cross-contamination.

What internal temperatures should food be cooked to?
Different foods have to reach different temperatures in order to be safe (Chart - Toronto Public Health). More specific information on cooking temperatures for different types of food items can be found on the Health Agency of Canada website.

Other safe cooking tips:

1. Frozen food: Never cook large roasts, whole chicken or turkeys while they are still  
frozen. The large size keeps the insides from cooking to a safe temperature, food looks cooked on the outside but still raw inside (photo - left) and can post a risk for food poisoning. 

Meat must be thawed completely first so the heat can reach the center of the meat faster during cooking.

2. Microwave cooking: Microwave oven is good for re-heating food but does not cook food evenly, especially cooking raw meats. If using a microwave oven cooking food, avoid cooking large cut meat or whole poultry and food must stir and turn while it cooks to make sure it cooks to the same temperature in every part.
Check the food with a metal stem or digital thermometer before serving.

Never keep metal thermometer in the food while it is cooking in the microwave oven, only use specific thermometer designed for use in microwave oven.

3. Frozen processed food: Some breaded processed food items such as fish sticks,  chicken burger patties or nuggets are raw and 'look cooked', they can even look like ready-to-eat food in the photo on the packages (Photo - right). Check the information to see if it indicates 'uncooked' or 'raw'. There are many misleading labels such as 'cooking is needed', 'Don't eat directly from package', 'May require cooking' etc.  Also do not just follow the instructions such as 'Preheat oven to 200 ºC /400 ºF and bake for 24-26 minutes', unless there is a thermometer in the oven to check and show the accurate oven temperature, do not just turn the dial to 200 °C/400 ºF as the degrees can be off between the dial and the oven's temperature. 

Always treat 'uncooked' or 'raw' processed food as fresh raw meat, poultry or seafood and use the specific cooking temperatures as indicated in the Cooking and Re-heating Temperatures for Hazardous Food chart. 

Be sure to use a metal stem or digital probe thermometer to ensure the internal temperature is cooked to a safe temperature (Photo - left).

4. Temperature gadgets: Do not trust gadgets such as a pop-up indicator that came with a 
turkey as this indicator does not usually give an accurate safe internal temperature. Sometimes it pops too early and ends up with under cooked turkey, which can post a risk of Salmonella food poisoning, or if it does not pop, the turkey may end up being over cooked. Also, it is usually inserted in the breast area less than 5 cm or 2 inches deep and hardly deep enough to give a safe internal temperature of the whole turkey. 

The best and the safest way to ensure the food is fully cooked to the proper internal temperature is by using metal stem or digital thermometer to check the internal temperature (Photo - right).

Danger Zone 
See what the pathogens have to say

See what Dr. Justin Beaver has to say about 
food safety during your next BBQ

Related links (Food Safety):

Public Health Agency - Canada

Ontario Ministry of Health

Toronto Public Health

CDC & Food Safety

BBQ Food Safety

How Healthy Is Your Refrigerator?


  1. It's really important for new cooks to know about this facts and this is one of the core factors of professional cooking. There are some food that goes poisonous if overcooked or reheated after being in refrigerator for a long time. This are some important issues worth looking into.

    1. Thanks for the comment Boise. Yes, all chefs, cooks and food handlers must be educated of safe food handling, preparation, cooking etc. to reduce the risk for food poisoning. In Toronto Canada, it's the law for food handlers to be certified after taking food safety classes if they want to operate food business. They are checked by health inspectors during inspection and can be charged (just like no driver license when driving).

  2. Good information and important things for people in restaurant business to remember proper cooking temperature and storage condition for food such as meat, seafood and dairy products. I deliver food to many restaurants everyday and while most restaurants are pretty good & hygienic, but some don't care with cleaning or store food in a safe way. Often I've to remind them of storing food safely but I was told to buzz off and not my business. I'm thinking of calling the health department to report them, but they would know it's me. Any suggestions?

    1. Thank you for the message. I agree that a clean restaurant is not necessary a safe restaurant if the operator & staff are not following food safety steps in food preparation, processing & storage, including transportation of food. I also think the health inspectors in the local area should be more proactive in enforcing food safety regulations.

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