How Quickly Must Non-Frozen Ready-To-Eat Foods Be Consumed?

Ready-to-eat foods (RTE) are known to have a shorter shelf life than fresh or dried food items in a pantry. According to the FDA, most ready-to-eat food items kept in sanitary conditions and from an approved source don’t require temperature and time controls for safety. Therefore, you can consider your food items safe for consumption without further processing if these assumptions are met. You can also determine whether your non-frozen ready-to-eat foods are safe experimentally because the time and temperature controls may vary depending on several other external factors. This article will help determine how quickly non-frozen ready-to-eat foods should be consumed.

What Are Non-Frozen Ready-To-Eat Foods?

These are just non-frozen foods that can be eaten immediately; no need to cook or reheat them. Therefore, food items such as deli meats, sandwiches, sushi, and salads are ready to be eaten immediately. These foods are sold in cafeterias, grocery store delis, and even take-out restaurants.

These food items are not frozen. When they are sold out, they’re ready to eat off the shelf without having to cook them. These foods are usually sold with a date on the label or package that tells consumers when they should be eaten. There are some myths that food can get poisonous if eaten once it has reached its sell-by date. While that might not be the case for certain RTE foods, it’s true for some food products such as cheese, eggs, poultry products, and fish.

In general, food products labeled RTE or non-frozen are foods you can eat without cooking or reheating. These foods have already been approved by food safety authorities and are safe to eat. FDA states that non-frozen RTE foods must be consumed within seven days of being prepared. 

That is why if you make or buy a dish on Tuesday, you have until Monday to eat all of it. If you don’t finish the food within that period, you should throw it out. There may be some exceptions to this rule, such as leftovers from parties or catered events. The FDA rules apply only to non-frozen ready-to-eat food items and not perishable or processed foods.

Various bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses are the main culprits that cause contamination of RTE foods. Some of the most common pathogens that cause illness in food are bacteria, viruses, parasites, and even fungi. The most common pathogens include Salmonella, Scromboid Toxins, Norovirus, and Listeria monocytogenes.

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How Long Are Your Non-Frozen Ready-To-Eat Food Products Good For?

Some RTE foods have a much-limited shelf life than dry food items, which is why you will see ‘Use By Dates’ on their packages, whereas you will never see such a date on dry goods packaging, even though they have a much smaller lifespan. RTE foods that need to be kept at a safe, possibly hazardous temperature and displayed include:

  • Frozen at about (0 °F or below)
  • Refrigerated at about (45°F or below)
  • Held in hot temperatures for service at about 135°F or higher

FDA states that food products that have been kept at a cold temperature for a long time should not be heated more than 149°F or for over an hour. After the food products are heated, they need to be rapidly cooled before being placed in a dangerous environment which is about 41°F.

It is important to cook meats properly before consuming them. Good meats ought to be eaten within 4 hours after being prepared. If a prepared meal cannot be eaten right away, it should be stored in an ice-water bath or in a refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Foods labeled “ready to eat” or RTE but not exposed to a dangerous environment must be kept at a safe temperature, approximately 41°F or below.

Some stores have changed their refrigeration systems so that meats and vegetables are not kept in dangerous temperatures and refrigerators that only reach around 38-40°F. In most cases, it is highly advised that food products exposed to a dangerous environment be consumed within 4 hours of being stored in safe temperatures.

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Factors That Determine How Quickly RTE Foods Should Be Consumed

Here are other factors that determine how quickly you should consume non-frozen RTE foods:

1. Acidity Levels

Bacteria prefer low-pH foods and do not like pH levels that are lower than 4.6. The pH range where bacteria thrive is 6.6 to 7.5. You must be very careful about purchasing RTE foods stored at pH levels within this range. Some RTE food items, such as poultry and fish, have low acidity and are thus highly contaminable. That is why lemon juice and vinegar have low PH levels that discourage bacterial growth and are recommended for preserving low-acid food.

2. Food Nutrients

Like all living organisms, bacteria you find in and on food need a food source and nutrients to live, grow and reproduce. Foods such as eggs containing many amino acids are perfect for bacteria to survive. Different species of bacteria prefer different types of food to thrive, but most prefer foods rich in carbohydrates and proteins. Raw and cooked eggs, cooked rice, and cooked pasta are perfect examples of foods that promote faster growth of bacteria and thus can easily get contaminated if stored for a long time.

3. Temperature

It is normal for bacteria to grow and multiply in a particular safe temperature zone called the “Temperature Danger Zone (TDZ), which ranges from 5°C to 60°C. When determining the TDZ, the “Extreme Temperature Danger Zone” or ETDZ is anywhere from 25°C to 39°C. This is where bacteria grow optimally. If you’re not consuming your RTE foods immediately, you should ensure they are not kept in the TDZ.

4. Time

Bacteria require time to multiply (reproduce) and perfect conditions for that to happen. A bacterium can quickly divide into two cells in as little as 15 minutes. It is also possible for bacteria to generate harmful toxins if the RTE foods are kept for longer. While bacteria in food are very unlikely to cause problems, they can become harmful if they produce certain toxins. It is also important to avoid RTE foods that have been in storage for over seven days, as the bacteria can continue to grow and produce harmful substances once inside a person’s intestines.

5. Oxygen

Most bacterial species require oxygen to grow, survive and thrive. These organisms are also known as “Aerobic bacteria.” Some bacteria cannot survive in oxygen-rich environments because they are anaerobic bacteria.

The process of storing RTE foods in airtight containers or vacuum-sealing prevents a lot of harmful bacteria from growing. Some bacteria thrive in oxygen-depleted environments, such as those that cause botulism. The bacteria are very rare but extremely dangerous and be easily found in foods that are improperly processed and canned. Storing foods in airtight containers or vacuum-sealing containers is an excellent way to keep bacteria from thriving.

6. Moisture

Bacteria also require moisture to grow, survive and reproduce. RTE food items with high water content encourage bacteria to grow and multiply rapidly. Raw meat, fish, poultry, and eggs are good examples of foods containing a lot of water, which is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria.

How To Keep RTE Foods Out Of Danger

Some important things that you can do to prevent food from becoming contaminated with bacteria include:

Keep RTE Food Refrigerated

Keep the unfrozen foods cool by storing food in a cool, dry place such as a fridge or the freezer. This will help keep bacteria from growing on food. RTE foods stored in the fridge are less likely to become spoiled, which will help you avoid getting infections.

Keep Food Frozen

When you store food in a freezer, it will be at a temperature that does not allow bacteria to grow. Also, ensure you keep food in a dry and clean place.

Cook Food Properly

Cook meat and other RTE foods thoroughly and store them in a cool, dry place. Food that is correctly and thoroughly cooked is free of bacteria. When you cook food to the correct temperature, be sure that it is not under or overcooked.

Always Wash Hands Thoroughly

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds before handling food. This will prevent food from becoming contaminated with bacteria.

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Use a Food Thermometer

Pay attention to your food temperature by using a food thermometer. This will help you to know if food is cooked to the right temperature so as to avoid the growth of bacteria.

Use Leftovers Quickly

It is important to reuse food after being leftover from a previous meal or event. You must clean up the spoiled food quickly because the bacteria that live in food for a very long time can quickly multiply. 

Final Thoughts

Most foods that are not frozen need to be eaten within 7-10 days; otherwise, they become unsafe to consume as they’ll have gone bad. If stored in a refrigerator for more than 24 hours, the food may contain hazardous food contaminants. In order to ensure that the food that is prepared and consumed is safe, non-frozen foods stored in ready-to-eat establishments ought to be clearly marked or labeled with the date that they were prepared and should be consumed within seven days.

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