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How quickly must non-frozen ready-to-eat foods be consumed?

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According to the FDA, ready-to-eat foods that are obtained from an approved source and under sanitary conditions do not require time and temperature controls for safety. These assumptions must be met in order for a food to be considered “ready-to-eat” so therefore safe if eaten without further processing. The specific time/temperature combination is determined experimentally and may vary by food.

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RTE foods that must be kept at a safe, potentially hazardous temperature during storage and display include:

  • refrigerated (45°F or below)
  • frozen (0 °F or below)
  • hot held for service at 135°F or above

The FDA also states that RTE foods that have been in a continuously cold environment must not be heated more than 149°F or for longer than one hour. After heating, the food products must then be rapidly cooled before it is placed into a potentially hazardous environment (41°F or below).

How quickly must non-frozen ready-to-eat foods be consumed?

Properly cooked meats should be consumed within 4 hours of preparation. If the meal is not to be eaten immediately, it should be placed in an ice-water bath or a refrigerator within 2 hours after cooking.

Foods that are labeled as “ready-to-eat” that have been not been exposed to a potentially hazardous environment must be stored at a safe temperature, typically below 41°F. In order to maintain this temperature on the store shelves, some stores have modified their refrigeration system so that meats and vegetables are only being exposed to temperatures around 38°-40°F.

In any case, it is highly recommended that RTE foods that have been exposed to a potentially hazardous environment be consumed within 4 hours of reaching the safe temperature.

The following factors will determine how quickly the food product must be consumed.

 1) What time of day is the item purchased? (i.e. lunch, breakfast, dinner).

If an individual purchases a bagel for breakfast at 7 am and does not leave air conditioning throughout the day until 4 pm, then that bagel must be eaten within 24 hours.

2) What is the room temperature?

If the room temperature is 90°F, then the food must be consumed within 6 hours. This is due to the fact that bacteria grow best at between 40° and 140°F; it doubles in number approximately every 20 minutes.

3) How long has the food product been in temperatures above or below 41°F?

This will vary depending on the type of food (frozen to thaw vs. hot and cold). If a food product has spent over 2 hours in temperatures above or below 41°F, then it must be consumed within 4 hours.

4) Is the temperature less than 90°F?

If yes, the time is reduced to 2 hours.

5) Is the food product dry (no moisture present)?

If yes, then consumption time is reduced to 1 hour.

6) Does the water activity of the product fall below 0.85?

If yes, consumption times are reduced to 30 minutes if kept at room temperature and 15 minutes if kept in a cold environment.

7) Does the product contain less than 2% oxygen?

If yes, then times are reduced to 15 minutes if kept at room temperature and 5 minutes if kept in a cold environment.

8) Is the food product commercially sterile (e.g., canned, pasteurized cheese or juice)?

If yes, then times are reduced to 15 minutes if kept at room temperature and 5 minutes if kept in a cold environment.

9) Is the product cooked?

If yes, then times are reduced to 8 hours if on an uncovered tray at room temperature or 4 hours if kept in a cold environment.

10) Is the product cooked and cooled?

If yes, then times are reduced to 6 hours if on an uncovered tray at room temperature or 3 hours if kept in a cold environment.

11) Is the food product moist (e.g., whole muscle meats, cooked pasta or rice, cheese sauce)?

If yes, then times are reduced to 4 hours if on an uncovered tray at room temperature or 2 hours if kept in a cold environment.

13) Is the food product dry (e.g., dehydrated vegetables or seasonings, dried fruit)?

If yes, then times are reduced to 2 hours if on an uncovered tray at room temperature or 1 hour if kept in a cold environment.

14) Is the food product raw (e.g., raw seed sprouts)?

If yes, then times are reduced to 4 hours if on an uncovered tray at room temperature or 2 hours if kept in a cold environment.

15) What is the product?

If an individual purchases cooked spaghetti to eat at noon during the summer, then that spaghetti must be eaten within 4 hours because it contains moisture and meets all of the above requirements.

What is the shelf life of non-frozen ready-to-eat foods?

The shelf life for non-frozen ready-to-eat foods is 4 hours if kept at room temperature or 2 hours if kept in a cold environment. For example, if an individual purchases cooked spaghetti to eat at noon during the summer, then that spaghetti must be eaten within 4 hours because it contains moisture and meets all of the above requirements.

How long can I store these foods in my freezer?

The freezer shelf life is 3 months. For example, if an individual purchases frozen strawberries to use in smoothies at night during the summer, then that strawberry fruit must be consumed within 3 months because it contains moisture and meets all of the above requirements.

Can you eat certain frozen ready-to-eat foods after they have thawed?

No, if a frozen ready-to-eat food has been thawed, then the shelf life is up to 3 days which means that it must be consumed within 3 days.

Can you eat non-cooked pork chops after they have gone bad?

Yes, as long as the pork has been refrigerated at below 40°F and has not been subjected to time and temperature abuse. Time can be reduced if the pork is kept below 38°F, but this does not require that it be consumed any sooner than the general 4 hour standard for cooked pork.

What are some examples of common non-frozen ready-to-eat foods that must be consumed quickly?

The examples below show five common non-frozen ready-to-eat foods that must be consumed within 1 hour of removal from ambient temperature:

  1. Fresh fruit
  2. Cooked vegetables
  3. Commercially sterile soy milk
  4. Canned soup and
  5. Dry roasted nuts.

These products are subject to the 4-hour standard if they contain moisture and meet the above requirements.

Can raw or cooked ground beef be refrozen after it has gone bad?

No, as long as any raw or cooked beef that goes into a freezer is consumed within 3 months and meets all of the other criteria listed here for non-frozen ready-to-eat foods.

What happens if we don’t abide by the 4-hour rule?

The FDA believes that the 4-hour rule and other food safety standards will help to ensure that most foods served in restaurants and offered for sale in stores are fit for human consumption.

What types of businesses follow these rules?

These rules apply to all restaurants, grocery stores, bars, coffee shops, delis, and any other place where non-frozen ready-to-eat foods are served.

Final words

Non-frozen ready-to-eat foods can cause several types of foodborne illnesses including Listeriosis, Toxoplasmosis, Parvovirus, and Hepatitis A. To ensure that these products are safe for consumption, they must be kept at the correct temperature which will reduce any risk of foodborne illness.

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