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Maintaining proper food temperature ensures that dangerous bacteria does not form and the food remains healthy to eat. Many foods are kept refrigerated for this reason, and while some foods can stay safe longer than others, it is important to know just how long items can be left unrefrigerated.

The Danger Zone

The "danger zone" refers to perishable food that is left between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The general consensus is that hot food that falls below 140 degrees is safe for about two hours, while cold food that rises above 40 degrees is safe for about the same amount of time. When food falls into the danger zone, bacteria can develop rapidly and cause food-borne illness.

Meats, Poultry and Seafood

Meat and poultry products spoil quickly and should be refrigerated within two hours of purchasing them. If you are trying to fit several errands into an outing, do your beef and chicken shopping last. Also, pick up these perishable items at the end of your grocery trip. The rule changes if the temperature outside exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In that weather, the food should be refrigerated within one hour.


Milk and other dairy products spoil very easily and, like meats, should be discarded if left out for more than two hours. Sour milk, however, can be used for baking. Butter and hard cheese are exceptions to this rule and can be left out for up to a day if they are well-wrapped and insulated.

Power Outages

In the event of a power outage, it is important to keep your refrigerator closed as much as possible to keep the temperature safe for as long as you can. Food can stay safe for up to 12 hours in a refrigerator without power, but it will spoil quicker if you keep opening and closing the door. You can also transfer items into your freezer where the food can stay good longer.