Ready-to-eat food refers to any food that is normally consumed in its raw state or any food handled, processed, or otherwise manufactured in a way that reduces the levels of pathogens to acceptable levels without adversely affecting the quality attributes of the food. Examples of ready-to-eat foods include deli meats, cheeses, raw fruits and vegetables, bakery items, etc. These foods do not require additional preparation steps by the consumer before consumption, such as cooking or reheating. However, they still require proper storage and handling to prevent microbial growth and contamination.
What is TCS food?
TCS stands for “time/temperature control for safety.” TCS foods require time and temperature control to limit pathogen growth and toxin production. Examples of TCS foods include meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, cut fruits and vegetables, cooked rice, beans, pasta and fish. Bacteria grow rapidly between 41°F and 135°F, so TCS foods must be kept out of this danger zone. Refrigeration slows bacterial growth, while freezing stops it completely. Heating to proper internal temperatures kills pathogens.
Why is temperature control important for TCS foods?
Proper temperature control is critical for ensuring the safety of TCS foods. Many types of dangerous bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and Clostridium botulinum, can grow rapidly at temperatures between 41°F and 135°F. Their growth can result in foodborne illness if the food is eaten without further cooking. Refrigeration and freezing prevents pathogen growth by keeping TCS foods outside of the danger zone. Heating TCS foods to their required safe internal temperatures destroys harmful bacteria.
Shelf life of ready-to-eat TCS foods under refrigeration
The shelf life of ready-to-eat TCS foods depends on several factors:
- Type of food – Some foods are more prone to spoilage and pathogen growth
- Ingredients and formulation – High protein, moisture, acidity, and salt content impact shelf life
- Packaging – Vacuum packing or modified atmosphere packaging help extend shelf life
- Processing method – Pasteurization, cooking, acidification help reduce microbes
- Storage temperature – Colder is better below 41°F
- Sanitation during processing – Prevent cross-contamination
Here are some general guidelines for refrigerated ready-to-eat TCS foods:
|Refrigerated Shelf Life
|Store-bought deli salads
|Cooked meat, pasta, eggs
These timelines assume proper refrigeration at 40°F or below the entire time. Always check product labels for food manufacturers’ recommended use-by dates. Discard foods by those dates for maximum safety and quality.
How to maximize refrigerated shelf life
Follow these tips to safely maximize the shelf life of refrigerated ready-to-eat TCS foods:
- Refrigerate foods as soon as possible, within 2 hours of preparation/purchase
- Set refrigerator temperature to 40°F or below
- Store opened packages resealed air tight
- Keep fridge organized with older products in front
- Avoid overcrowding fridge to allow cold air circulation
- Sanitize refrigerator regularly
- Use food within recommended time or discard sooner if questionable
Freezer storage for ready-to-eat TCS foods
Freezing ready-to-eat TCS foods can significantly extend their shelf life by stopping bacteria growth. Here are approximate freezer storage times:
|Freezer Storage Time
|Cooked meat, poultry
To maximize freezer storage life:
- Freeze foods as soon as possible after cooking
- Portion items in quantities for one meal
- Use moisture-proof, airtight packaging
- Remove as much air as possible
- Label packages with contents and dates
- Freeze at 0°F or below
- Once thawed, eat within 3-4 days
Safely thawing frozen ready-to-eat foods
It’s important to thaw frozen ready-to-eat TCS foods safely:
- Refrigerator: Thaw overnight in fridge at 40°F or below
- Cold water: Submerge sealed package in cold tap water, change water every 30 mins
- Microwave: Thaw foods meant for immediate consumption
- Never thaw at room temperature or in hot water which allows bacteria growth
Foods thawed in fridge can be refrozen safely if not used within 3-4 days. Microwave-thawed items should be eaten immediately.
Shelf-stable ready-to-eat TCS foods
Some ready-to-eat TCS foods are processed in ways that render them shelf-stable without refrigeration. Methods include:
- Canning – Involves heating food in sealed containers to destroy bacteria
- Retort pouches – Similar to canning but packages food in lightweight laminated pouches
- Ultra high temperature (UHT) treatment – Heats milk, juices and other liquids to 280-302°F for 2-4 seconds destroying spores
- High pressure processing (HPP) – Uses extreme water pressure to kill microbes while maintaining food texture
- Irradiation – Exposes food to ionizing radiation eliminating bacteria
- Freeze drying – Removes moisture inhibiting microbial growth
- Water activity control – Reduces available moisture through drying/concentrating
- Oxygen removal – Limits growth of aerobic microorganisms
- Preservatives – Inhibit bacterial growth and spoilage
Follow the storage guidelines on shelf-stable products’ packaging. Once opened, refrigerate leftovers in air-tight containers. Discard cans with significant dents, rust, swelling or leakage which can allow pathogen growth. Most unopened shelf-stable foods last 1-2 years, but taste quality declines over time.
Examples of shelf-stable ready-to-eat TCS foods
- Canned tuna, chicken, ham, corned beef
- Vacuum-packed smoked fish
- Pasteurized processed cheese
- Canned soups, stews, chili
- Boxed UHT milk, juice, egg whites
- Canned fruits packed in juice
- Shelf-stable tofu
- Bottled salad dressings, sauces
- Dried meats like beef jerky
- Powdered milk, eggs
Check product labels for recommended shelf life once opened and refrigerate leftovers promptly.
Signs ready-to-eat TCS food has spoiled
Discard refrigerated ready-to-eat TCS foods if they exhibit the following signs of spoilage:
- Off odors, colors, textures
- Mold growth
- Gas bubbles
- Yeasty smells
- Sour odors
- Undesirable taste
Canned goods may be spoiled if cans are rusted, dented, swollen or leaking. Do not taste food from damaged cans. Refrigerate leftovers in shallow airtight containers within 2 hours. Reheat leftovers to 165°F.
When in doubt, throw it out!
It’s not worth the risk of foodborne illness. Discard ready-to-eat TCS foods if they have been held too long at unsafe temperatures allowing microbial growth. Monitor refrigerator and freezer temperatures. Follow use-by dates and reliance on sight and smell can confirm spoilage.
Food safety tips for ready-to-eat TCS foods
- Wash hands and prep surfaces before handling
- Avoid cross contamination between raw and cooked items
- Keep cold foods refrigerated at 40°F or below
- Store foods properly sealed and organized in fridge
- Label and track all refrigerated items
- Limit time perishables sit out during prep
- Follow microwave directions to heat leftovers to 165°F
- When reheating, heat thoroughly stirring occasionally
- Never refreeze thawed refrigerator foods
- Use frozen items within recommended times
- Verify cans are in good condition, no dents, rust, bulging
- Clean and sanitize refrigerator regularly
Practice FIFO (First In, First Out)
Rotate stock using older products first to maximize freshness and minimize waste. Place new items in back of fridge/freezer and move older items up front.
Ready-to-eat TCS foods like deli meats, cheeses, cooked dishes and leftovers have a limited shelf life requiring proper refrigerated storage. Shelf-stable canned goods can extend shelf life of TCS foods without refrigeration but require safe handling once opened. Monitor temperatures, use-by dates, signs of spoilage and food safety practices to keep refrigerated ready-to-eat foods safe and high quality. Freeze extras to prolong storage life. Thaw frozen items safely in refrigerator, cold water, or microwave based on usage. Discard food if ever in doubt about safety or quality.