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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, February/March 2006

Do You Know Your Danger Zones?

by Mike Milliorn

The “temperature danger zone” is known throughout the food service industry as 41° to 135° F. Did you also know there are danger zones throughout your establishment? Danger zones exist throughout any foodservice establishment where foodborne illness can occur at any moment of any day. Following proper procedures and using the right food safety products, however, protects customers and employees from these potential problems.

Eight critical danger zones must be carefully managed from a food safety perspective. These areas are:

  • Receiving area
  • Storage areas – including dry, refrigerated and frozen areas
  • Preparation areas
  • Cooking surfaces
  • Employee break rooms
  • Employee wash areas
  • Restrooms
  • Dining areas – including tables, salad bars and drink stands


The first danger zone food encounters is the receiving area. This is the first opportunity for a food service organization to view and inspect foods to ensure that they were properly shipped and did not encounter environments that could jeopardize the product’s quality for customers. All products delivered should meet the health department’s pre-established standards.

So how can employees assure that incoming products are safe? First, the manager should schedule deliveries during the slower business hours so that enough trained staff is available to inspect and store the food properly. The deliveries should be inspected and checked for proper labeling, freshness code dates and temperatures. The temperatures should be checked and recorded at the time of delivery. If the food is not at the proper temperature, it could already be contaminated and, therefore, food should not be accepted.

A visual inspection of the product itself should be performed on certain foods, such as produce. If the produce appears discolored or has visible signs of rotting or insect activity, it should not be accepted.

Next, the packaging must also be checked. Look for holes, tears or punctures. If the packaging is not sealed properly then contamination may have occurred. Things to look for include broken boxes, packages that are leaking or look like they once had a leak and dented or bulging cans. These can be considered signs of mishandling and could be used as a reason to refuse the shipment. Also, check for signs of re-freezing or pest infestation, such as small holes.

Packages should be inspected immediately upon delivery and placed in proper storage as quickly as possible to keep them out of the temperature danger zone. Also, all items should be labeled with the date, such as with the Daydots day-of-the-week food rotation labels.

To avoid the possibility of having your receiving area become a “danger zone,” develop a relationship with vendors, and, ideally, tour establishments to see if vendors you’re your quality standards.


The second danger zone that food encounters is the storage zone. The first challenge is making sure that all food is properly stored in the right storage facility at the proper temperature. For refrigerated foods the storage unit should be at a temperature of 41° F or lower. Frozen storage should hold food at 0° F or lower while dry storage, which is used to hold dry and canned food, should be between 50° and 70° with humidity levels of 50 to 60 percent.

When storing food, it is imperative that food handlers pay attention to which food goes on which shelf. Raw foods like meat and poultry should go on the bottom shelves; if their juices drip, they will not contaminate the food below it. Cooked and ready-to-eat foods should be placed on the upper shelves so that they cannot be contaminated by raw foods. In addition, raw foods should be stored in this top to bottom order: Whole fish, whole cuts of beef and pork, ground meats and fish, then whole and ground poultry.

Food also should be shelved based upon the use-by dates that were put on the package at the receiving area. It should be set up so that the oldest food is used first. This is called the first in, first out (FIFO) method.

Foods in dry storage should be kept at least six inches off the ground and away from the walls. Another challenge is making sure that the food is stored away from contaminants. It should be as far as possible from garbage and chemicals. The storage area should be easily accessible to the receiving, food preparation and cooking areas.


Preparing the food constitutes the next potential danger zone. First, employees must watch for cross-contamination of foods. Raw meat, poultry and fish should be prepared in separate areas from produce. Certain equipment, such as cutting boards and utensils, should be assigned to each type of food. For example, using one color or set of cutting boards and utensils for each type of food is one way to keep food from contaminating other food types.

RED– Beef
YELLOW– Poultry
BLUE– Cooked foods
GREEN– Vegetables
WHITE– Dairy

Proper food temperatures must be maintained throughout the preparation stage. The food’s temperature should not fall in the temperature danger zone for longer than four hours; Otherwise bacteria can begin to grow. This rule applies during thawing and cooking stages as well as cooling, re-freezing and reheating.

Meeting the required cooking temperatures is the most critical. If foods are served undercooked to customers or employees, the results could become life threatening. The minimum temperature must be met so that the potential number of microorganisms, which may be present in all foods, are reduced to safe levels. The required temperatures are different for each type of food. Food must reach and hold the minimum internal temperature for a certain time period. The internal temperatures of all products should always be checked with a thermometer before they are served. Proper temperature zones include:

  • Poultry should register an internal temperature of 165° F for 15 seconds;
  • Ground beef at 155° for 15 seconds;
  • Pork at 145° for 15 seconds;
  • Beef roasts at 145° for 3 minutes; and
  • Beef steaks and other cuts, pork, veal, lamb, fish and game animals at 145° for 15 seconds.

Cooking Surfaces

Some may not envision cooking surfaces as a potential danger zone. Food, however, that has spilled over and coated cooking surface can be dangerous, not only because it could catch fire if spilled on a burner, but it can also build harmful bacteria. A good cleaning schedule shows every area of the kitchen and how often it should be cleaned. Most cooking surfaces require a deep cleaning at closing time and various cleanings throughout the day, depending on how often the surface is used throughout the day.

Employee Break Rooms and Wash Areas

Employee break rooms can be hazardous when they are not well cleaned because bacteria can be transferred from this zone to other zones, such as the food preparation area. The employee areas should be cleaned and sanitized in the same manner as the rest of the establishment. Even though employee break rooms may be out of customers’ view, following the same food safety rules protects everyone’s safety – consumers and employees alike.

Handwashing may appear to be something that everyone knows how to do; however, many food handlers do not wash their hands properly or as often as needed. Proper handwashing includes six simple, but important steps:

  • Wet hands with hot water;
  • Apply soap;
  • Scrub hands and arms for at least 20 seconds;
  • Clean fingernails and fingers;
  • Rinse thoroughly under hot, running water; and
  • Dry hands and arms with a paper towel or warm-air hand dryer.

Hand sanitizers or hand dips can be used along with washing; however, they should never replace washing. If hand sanitizers are used, the employee should never touch any food or equipment until the sanitizer has dried completely. This is so that the sanitizing chemicals do not get onto food or food contact surfaces.

Employee wash stations should be present in the food preparation and service areas as well as in the restrooms.


Separate restrooms for employees and customers are ideal, but if that is not possible, it is important that customers not pass through food preparation areas on their way to the restroom. They could contaminate food or food contact surfaces.

The restroom should be well-stocked with toilet paper, soap and disposable towels. Trash cans must be present if disposable towels are used and covered trash cans must be provided in women’s restrooms for sanitary supplies.

The restroom also should also be thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom at least once a day, if not more frequently. The faucet also must have hot and cold water available.

Dining Area

The dining area should be kept as clean as possible. The tables should be wiped and sanitized after each customer leaves the table. Crumbs, spills and soiled areas should be wiped off the floor as well. Keeping the floor clean will help prevent pests, such as insects and rodents.

If the dining area is large, it may be necessary to assign someone to the dining room as a designated cleaning employee. The cleaning sponges, rags, brooms and mops should not be the same ones used in the restrooms or cooking areas. This is important because bacteria can be spread from one zone to another. Having designated cleaning supplies for designated restaurant zones represents an added precaution against cross contamination while cleaning.

Cross-contamination can become a big problem when it occurs, yet can be prevented by consistently following several easy steps. Simply divide the establishment into zones and make sure the proper precautions are being taken. All cleaning supplies such as sponges, rags and mops should all have a designated “zone” in which they remain. For example, the sponge that is used to clean the restroom should not be used to clean the kitchen countertops where food is being prepared or the dining room tables where customers are eating. Microorganisms can stay on the sponge and then be left behind on a different surface. To help avoid cross contamination, color-coded products, such as mops, buckets and more, allow food service establishments to design zone isolation systems. For example, a restaurant can use blue for the dining area, red for the kitchen and yellow for the restrooms.

Danger zones exist in every foodservice establishment where foodborne illnesses can originate at any time of any day. By raising awareness of the restaurant danger zones, including the temperature danger zones, the right procedures and products can be used to decrease the possibility of a costly problem and ensure happy, healthy, well-protected customers and employees. –FQ

Mike Milliorn, president of Daydots (Fort Worth, Texas), can be reached at 800-458-3687.



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