When working to prevent foodborne illness, it’s important to recognize that some food items are more likely than others to become unsafe to eat. Those items are known as TCS foods or Time/Temperature Control for Safety foods. A TCS food requires time and temperature controls to limit the growth of illness causing bacteria. What foods are considered TCS?
When working to prevent foodborne illness, it’s important to recognize that some food items are more likely than others to become unsafe to eat. Those items are known as TCS foods or Time/Temperature Control for Safety foods. A TCS food requires time and temperature controls to limit the growth of illness causing bacteria.
What foods are considered TCS?
There are certain foods that create a better environment for bacteria to multiply. Time and temperature controlled (TCS) foods are foods that when not correctly stored, heated, cooled, or prepared run the risk of having high numbers of pathogenic bacteria.
Knowing what TCS foods are and how to properly control their temperature will help ensure that your customers do not get a foodborne illness, making it an integral part of food safety training.
List of TCS Foods
The following foods need strict time and temperature control when preparing, serving, and storing:
Foods that are dried, canned, vacuum packed, high in acidity, or high in salt or sugar are considered low-risk foods as they don’t have good conditions for bacteria to grow in.
Temperature Danger Zone
The temperature danger zone is between 40°F - 140°F and is the temperature range in which foodborne bacteria can thrive. For TCS foods, it is important to minimize time in the temperature danger zone in order to prevent bacteria from multiplying.
TCS Foods Temperature Controls
It is especially important to keep TCS foods out of the temperature danger zone in order to avoid spreading foodborne illnesses.
Here is how to properly hold, cook, thaw, and reheat foods that will keep pathogenic bacteria from multiplying.
Cold TCS foods must be held at 40°F or below.
TCS hot foods should be maintained at 135°F or above.
Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator, under running water, or during the cooking process. NEVER thaw frozen foods at room temperature.
Cook TCS foods to their minimum required temperature, as listed on our recommended safe minimum internal cooking temperatures guide.
If the TCS food is at 135°F, it must be cooled to 70°F in 2 hours and 41°F within 6 hours. From room temperature, TCS foods must be cooled to 41°F within 4 hours.
Remember to keep containers with hot food uncovered while cooling to prevent condensation, then cover once it is cooled.
When reheating, TCS foods must reach a minimum internal temperature of 165°F for at least 15 seconds within 2 hours.
You already know that food safety is extremely important, and that cross-contamination can lead to foodborne illness. But did you know there are certain foods that require special handling when it comes to time and temperature control? These foods are called TCS foods, and you might be surprised by some of the items on the list. We'll explain why these particular foods cause a problem and how you can handle them in the safest way possible.
What Is TCS Food?
TCS stands for time/temperature control for safety. Any foods that are designated as TCS require strict time and temperature control. But what does that mean exactly? Time and temperature control means you must monitor the temperature of the food and ensure it stays within a certain range for a designated length of time. When TCS foods are not monitored correctly for time and temperature, you run into problems with bacteria growth and foodborne illness. Time and temperature abuse occurs when foods enter the temperature danger zone.
List of TCS Foods
If you aren't familiar with TCS foods, you could be neglecting a big part of your food safety program. Check out our TCS foods list to learn more about each food and why it's at risk.
1. Meat and Poultry
It's ingrained in most of our minds that meat and poultry products can "go bad" if they aren't handled correctly. The reason that meat and poultry are considered TCS foods is because they provide a hospitable environment for bacteria and microorganisms. Moist, protein-rich, and acidic foods like meat and chicken already carry some bacteria, so it's important to stop growth in its tracks and kill any germs with proper storage and cooking.
Keep these tips in mind when handling meat and poultry in your kitchen:
2. Milk and Dairy
The next group of TCS foods on our list is milk and dairy products. Just like other at-risk foods, dairy is rich in protein and makes an inviting environment for bacteria to thrive. The best way to prevent this is to make sure dairy products are always stored at the correct holding temperature. Apply “first in, first out” rules to organize your cold storage and use the oldest products first. Dispose of any dairy products that are past the “use by” date.
What Temperature Should Milk be Stored At?
Store all milk and dairy products at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. This includes dairy-based milk and any products that contain dairy milk, like cheese, sour cream, or butter.
How Long Does Milk Last in the Fridge?
Milk should only be kept in the fridge for 7 days. The exception is if the “use by” date has already passed, then the product should be disposed of right away.
Follow these tips for handling TCS milk and dairy products:
3. Fish and Shellfish
Fish and shellfish have a bad reputation for causing foodborne illnesses when improperly handled. Before you even receive a shipment of seafood, you should make sure you only source products from reputable suppliers. Safe seafood starts at the source, especially for sushi-grade fish and shellfish that are eaten raw. Look for suppliers with a strict food safety program and traceability practices.
Don’t be afraid to reject a seafood shipment that doesn’t look or smell right to you. Train your staff to inspect fish and shellfish carefully on arrival and to understand live shellfish tags.
What is a shellfish tag? A shellfish tag should be attached to all shipments of live shellfish (crustaceans and mollusks). The label should provide the supplier’s name, the original harvest date, and harvest location. Other important info like the dealer’s certification number and the shipper’s certification number helps to identify and track shellfish shipments in the case of a contamination issue. You must keep all shellfish identification tags on file for 90 days.
Follow these tips for handling TCS fish and shellfish:
When you think of the safety concerns surrounding this TCS food, the bacteria Salmonella most likely comes to mind. Eggs can become contaminated with Salmonella on the inside and outside of the egg during the laying process, which makes proper handling very important. But as long as you follow time and temperature rules for storing, prepping, and cooking eggs, they are safe to serve and consume.
Pasteurized eggs have been heat-treated to destroy bacteria, making them a safer option for dishes that contain raw or undercooked eggs. If you serve high-risk populations in a hospital or other healthcare facility, you should stick with pasteurized egg products.
What Are Shell Eggs?
Shell eggs are fresh eggs in the shell. They are called shell eggs to differentiate them from other egg products.
What Are Pooled Eggs?
Pooling eggs is a common preparation method, especially for high-volume kitchens that serve breakfast. Several eggs are cracked into one mixing bowl and combined, making it easy for cooks to portion out eggs onto the griddle. The issue with pooling eggs occurs when the egg mixture sits out too long without being refrigerated and eggs are continuously added to the mixture. Pooled eggs should be cooked completely after mixing or stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Follow these tips for handling TCS shell eggs:
5. Tofu and Soy
You might be surprised to see tofu and soy listed as TCS foods. It’s a misconception that plant-based meat substitutes don’t require special handling. Tofu and other soy products contain protein and are moist environments, which puts them at risk for bacteria growth if they are time and temperature abused.
Does Tofu Go Bad?
Yes, tofu has the potential to spoil if it's handled improperly. Always check the expiration date on the package of unopened tofu. Discard any tofu or soy products that are past the “use by” date. If opened, tofu should be used within 3 or 4 days.
Follow these tips for handling TCS tofu and soy products:
6. Cooked Potatoes
Cooked potatoes are another TCS food that poses a risk for bacteria growth when they are handled incorrectly. You might be wondering how potatoes cause an issue if they are already cooked. Prepared TCS foods that are cooked can easily enter the temperature danger zone if they aren’t stored or held properly. This is a common issue with baked potatoes and potato salads.
Learn more about the proper way to cool cooked foods in our cooling foods guide.
Follow these tips for handling TCS cooked potatoes:
7. Sprouts or Sprouted Seeds
Sprouts and sprouted seeds are on the list of TCS foods because they have the potential to be hazardous when consumed. The ideal growing environment for sprouts is moist and humid, the same conditions that encourage bacteria growth. This, combined with the fact that sprouts are often eaten raw, makes them a potential cause of foodborne illness.
Sprouts that have been contaminated at the source may show no signs that bacteria is present, which makes them extremely risky, especially for populations with weakened immune systems. Avoid serving raw sprouts to children, older adults, and pregnant women. The only way to ensure there is no bacteria present on sprouts is to cook them. If you simply must serve raw sprouts, include a disclaimer on your menu warning that consuming raw sprouts may result in an increased risk of foodborne illness.
Follow these tips for handling TCS raw sprouts:
8. Leafy Greens
Once leafy greens are cut, they become a TCS food. The part of the leaf that is cut or torn becomes an entryway for bacteria or microbes to contaminate the lettuce. This applies to all types of greens, including romaine, spring mix, spinach, and kale. All cut leafy greens should be stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below to prevent the growth of pathogens. Heads of lettuce that haven’t been cut can be stored at room temperature.
You’ll also want to make sure you wash heads of lettuce and other greens to remove dirt and grit. Check out our guide to washing lettuce so that it stays fresh and crisp.
Follow these tips for handling TCS cut leafy greens:
9. Cut Tomatoes and Melons
Though it may be surprising, cut tomatoes and melons are considered TCS foods. The intact skin and rind of these foods prevent bacteria growth, but once the flesh is exposed by being sliced or cut, it becomes vulnerable. Salmonella, in particular, grows quickly on cut tomatoes and cantaloupe. To prevent any issues, store cut tomatoes and melons at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
The greatest risk occurs when cut tomatoes and melons are left out of cold storage and allowed to enter the temperature danger zone. Picnics, barbecues, and outdoor catered events spell trouble for TCS foods that aren’t held with cold storage. Keep melons and tomatoes chilled and perform temperature checks every two hours.
Follow these tips for handling TCS cut tomatoes and melons:
10. Cooked Rice, Beans, Grains, and Vegetables
Dried rice, beans, pasta, and grains aren’t considered TCS foods until they are cooked. The dried form of these foods can be stored at room temperature, but once they are reconstituted and heated, they become susceptible to bacteria growth. The same rule applies to fresh vegetables that are cooked. Any dish that contains cooked rice, beans, vegetables, or pasta must be treated as a TCS food and kept out of the temperature danger zone.
Follow these tips for handling TCS cooked rice, beans, pasta, grains, and vegetables:
11. Untreated Garlic and Oil Mixtures
Raw garlic is considered resistant to some bacteria, so how did it end up on the TCS foods list? When you take peeled, minced, or roasted garlic cloves and add them to oil, the mixture has the potential to create a breeding ground for the bacteria that causes botulism. If you make your own garlic oil mixtures, don’t leave them out at room temperature or you are risking a case of foodborne illness.
Commercially prepared garlic in oil is preserved using strict guidelines that prevent the growth of any bacteria, so you have no worries there. The greatest risk comes with preparing your own garlic-infused oils. Store these in cold storage at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
Follow these tips for handling TCS garlic and oil mixtures:
TCS Foods FAQs
We answer some common questions about TCS foods below:
What Does TCS Stand For in Food Safety?
TCS stands for time and temperature control for safety.
Is Bread a TCS Food?
Bread is not considered a TCS food because it doesn't provide a moist environment where bacteria can thrive. This doesn't mean that bread won't go bad under certain conditions, but bread is more susceptible to mold growth than the types of bacteria that cause foodborne illness.
Which Foods Do Not Need Temperature Control?
Besides bread, there are many foods that don't require temperature control. Dried beans and grains, dry goods like flour and sugar, unopened canned foods, uncut fruits, and packaged foods can be stored at room temperature.
What Is the TCS Danger Zone Temperature Range?
The danger zone for TCS foods is between 41 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit.
Is It 40 or 41 Degrees?
You'll notice that many resources across the web will either state 40 degrees or 41 degrees Fahrenheit as the safe maximum temperature for cold foods. In our resources, we recommend that foods be kept at 40 degrees or below because that is the common pre-set temp range for most commercial refrigeration.
Train your staff to handle all TCS foods with care and follow time and temperature requirements. Keeps these foods out of the danger zone, cool them properly for storage, and heat them to the correct temperature for serving.