Cold Storage Areas too Warm
By: Cindy Rice, RS
Eastern Food Safety
Many factors work together to make a restaurant operation run smoothly and efficiently, but there is one critical food safety control that underlies all others, and that is maintaining food temperatures. In fact, one of the most overlooked food safety issues is that of cold storage areas being too warm, more specifically, ambient (air) temperatures of refrigeration units exceeding 41˚F. Improper cold holding temperatures was cited 14.4% of the time by health inspectors during routine inspections, and it’s more than likely your food establishment has been hit with this violation at some point.
Quality: Not keeping foods cold enough (41˚F or below) contributes to growth of spoilage microorganisms, leading to food waste and declining quality factors such as taste, odor, color and texture.
Cost: Food spoilage and waste directly take away from your bottom line.
Safety: Food safety is probably the biggest concern when temperature controls are lacking and “Improper cold holding temperatures” is one of CDC’s 5 major risk factors that contribute to foodborne illness. Pathogenic bacteria easily grow at elevated temperatures (Temperature Danger Zone is in between 41˚ and 135˚F) which can lead to foodborne illness. These can include Listeria monocytogenes in deli meats and cheeses, Clostridium perfringens in cooked TCS (time and temperature control for safety) foods, and Bacillus cereus in cooked rice or pasta. Some fish can produce scombroid (histamine) toxins if not kept at 41˚F or below (e.g., oily fish such as tuna, mackerel, mahi mahi.)
Reasons Why This Happens
There are several common practices by food workers that contribute to cold storage areas being too warm:
Over-stacking food items, or too little space between items in a refrigerated unit doesn’t allow cold air to flow freely through shelving, making it harder to maintain cold temperatures.
Frequent opening of refrigerator doors or leaving deli unit cases open causes cold air to escape and it’s difficult to make up that loss quickly enough after doors are closed.
Refrigerating foods while still warm (not cooling them properly) can contribute to higher ambient temperature in the cold unit, putting other foods inside at risk of bacterial growth.
Goal: Keep cold TCS foods temperatures at 41˚F or below in all storage areas*
- Take temperatures daily of TCS foods in refrigerators with a food thermometer (Time and Temperature Control for Safety foods that are those that are high in protein or carbohydrates, moist, and not too acidic, and can support bacterial growth at elevated temperatures.)
- Set your cold storage unit to ensure an inside air temperature of 35˚-37˚F. This will allow you to better maintain food temperatures of 41˚ or below.
- Have a dial or wall thermometer installed in every cold holding unit. Check and record temperatures daily, to ensure units are working properly and service equipment when needed
- Do not overstock coolers and freezers and leave sufficient space between items to allow cold air flow
- Reduce the portion size - empty hot foods into smaller containers, or cut roasts into smaller pieces, to increase the surface area of the food and facilitate cooling
- Do not leave refrigerator unit doors open unnecessarily
- Maintain depth of food less than 3” when placed in pans for refrigeration.
- Cool hot foods to 41˚F or below before storing
- Keep items 6” off floor on racks, to allow cold air flow from beneath products
Paying attention to these simple but effective measures will help keep your cold storage areas cold, foods safer, and quality and cost concerns minimized.