Refrigeration Tips to Keep Your Food Safe

Chefs in the kitchen 2A refrigerator is one of the most important pieces of kitchen equipment for keeping foods safe. In a food service environment, our existence depends on the cooling equipment. The science of refrigeration has evolved from prehistoric times when man found his wild game would last longer packed in the coolness of a cave or packed in snow.  Our ancestors harvested ice to keep food cold. Now, if the power goes off, we are instantly reminded of the refrigerator’s importance to our daily life, at home and certainly in a food service facility.

How Cold is Cold Enough? Cold temperatures keep harmful bacteria from growing. Amazingly, bacteria in perishable foods can increase in numbers by doubling in as little as 15-20 minutes. In just a few hours at room temperature, that’s a million bacteria and enough to make a customer sick. According to the FDA Food Code, perishable foods must be stored at 41°F or below. That’s internal food temperature checked with a stem thermometer – not refrigeration air temperature. Did you know that to keep foods 41°F or below, your cooler’s air temperature must be 2 to 3 degrees colder? Keeping the air temperature around 38°F or below (range of 34 to 38°F) without freezing is ideal for most foods.  Fresh produce can be closer to 41°F.

Refrigerator temperatures fluctuate, especially in a busy food service environment. Keep that door closed. The best way to regulate your cooling equipment is with a refrigerator thermometer. Set the thermometer in the warmest part of the unit (usually near the door), and keep it inside at all times. Most importantly, monitor and record the temperature daily with a chart on the unit to be sure your food is stored safely below 41°F. The placement of food is crucial for cooling and cross-contamination prevention. Do not overpack the shelves with food. The refrigerator air needs to circulate to keep every food item at its optimum temperature.  Remember that cool air moves downward in the refrigerator, forcing warmer air near the bottom to rise. This air circulation is essential in maintaining the optimum temperature throughout.

What do consumers know about cooling foods? Although the refrigerator is an essential kitchen appliance, Americans lack important knowledge on how to keep foods safe in the fridge. A survey conducted by The American Dietetic Association (ADA) and ConAgra Foundation, found that most consumers don’t understand the consequences of storing foods at an incorrect temperature. Just four out of 10 consumers recognize that eating food stored in a refrigerator with a temperature higher than 41°F would increase the likelihood of foodborne illness.  In a restaurant setting, the crew must know more about food safety than consumers. Make certain your new employees know the minimum cold holding requirements and how to take an internal food temperature.  Use a calibrated, sanitized stem thermometer and insert it into 2 places–in the thickest part or center of the food.

Refrigeration cleaning, maintenance, and safety tips– When scrubbing the kitchen, include a “refrigerator / walkin cooler make-over” on your to-do list. Not only will the fridge be spotless, it will improve the safety and quality of your foods. For the best cleaning results, always refer to your owner’s manual, but here are a few simple tips.

  • Scrub down the inside of your refrigerator (including shelves and drawers) using warm soapy water. Rinse with clean water, then wipe surfaces with a sanitizer and dry with paper towels. Avoid using cleaners that may pass on taste to food or cause damage to surfaces.
  • Keep the front grill free of dust to allow free airflow to the condenser for best cooling and efficiency. Also, clean the condenser coils with a brush or vacuum. And remember to unplug the refrigerator when cleaning the coils.
  • Make it a habit to wipe up spills and sanitize immediately, especially from raw meat juices. If thawing meats, do it on the bottom shelf in a covered pan or container to reduce the chance of a spill and cross-contamination.  Raw meats, raw poultry, and raw seafood must be stored on the lowest refrigerator shelves and preferably segregated.
  • Throw out foods that have been “hibernating” in your coolers. The FDA Food Code requires that once potentially hazardous, ready-to-eat food (stored at 41°F or below) is opened or prepared and stored, you must label them with a 7 day discard date.  Check expiration dates to help determine when to dispose of foods. But when in doubt, throw it out.
  • “Use by” or “best if used by” date is not a safety-related date. It’s the last date recommended for use of the product at optimal quality. “Expiration” date means don’t consume the product after this date.
  • Hot food or leftovers must be rapidly chilled in an ice bath, cut or divided into smaller portions, use shallow containers, or use some rapid chill method before putting it in the cooler. FDA Food Code allows the 2 stage cooling method: 135 to 70°F in 2 hours or less and 70 to 41°F in 4 hours for total cooling time of 6 hours. Check you local state requirements.

Bottom Line: Log refrigeration temperatures daily on a chart. For temperature charts you can use in your operation, visit our “Tools and Resources” page. One chart is for refrigeration monitoring. Post a chart on each cooler unit and assign staff to take daily refrigeration temperature readings.


About the Author: Lacie Thrall

Lacie Thrall PictureLacie Thrall passed away in early 2017 after a long illness. She dedicated her 35-year career to improving the health and well-being of others by promoting food safety best practices. Lacie worked in environmental health for 17 years before joining FoodHandler in 1997 as the Director of Safety Management. While at FoodHandler, she trained employees and customers on safe food handling practices, including proper hand hygiene and glove use. Later as a FoodHandler consultant, Lacie provided the foodservice industry with food safety information and advice through her blog on

This information is provided as a general guideline and is not intended to be, nor does it, constitute legal or regulatory advice. Additional Federal regulations may apply to your particular circumstances. State, regional and local laws, ordinances and regulations may also apply.