How Restaurants Cool Food

Woman taking temperature of food in refrigerator.

EHS-Net Recommends

Restaurant managers and food safety programs should work to improve restaurant cooling practices. These efforts should focus on

  • Improving poor cooling practices and processes, as found in this study.
  • Tackling barriers to proper cooling.

Why This Study Was Done

Hot food needs to be cooled quickly to stop germ growth and foodborne illness outbreaks caused by germs. From 1998 to 2008, hot food cooled too slowly led to 504 outbreaks of foodborne illness in restaurants. We don’t know much about how restaurants cool food. If we learn more, we can improve how restaurants cool food. And we can lower the number of foodborne illness outbreaks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Code includes advice on how to cool food safely and quickly. This advice includes cooling food

  • In the refrigerator at or below 41°F,
  • In shallow pans, and
  • In a way that air can flow around and in the pans (ventilated). Food can be ventilated by
    • Keeping it loosely covered.
    • Not stacking pans of cooling food on top of each other.
    • Providing open air space around pans of cooling food.

FDA’s advice also focuses on using processes tested and proven to cool food safely.

What the Study Described

The purpose of this study was to describe how restaurants cool food and whether they follow FDA advice.

What the Study Found

Cooling practices
Some restaurants did not follow FDA advice on cooling:

  • 16% of cooling unit temperatures were above 41°F.
  • Shallow* pans were not used more than a third of the time.
  • Food was not always ventilated.
    • Food was not loosely covered almost a third of the time.
    • Pans of cooling food were stacked on top of each other 16% of the time.
    • There was no open air space around pans of cooling food a fourth of the time.

*For this study, “shallow” was defined as 3 inches or less.

Graph showing poor cooling practices seen in restaurants: Cooling unit temps higher than 41°F, 16%; food depth not shallow, 39%; food not ventilated, 34%; stacked containers, 14%; no open air space, 24%.

Cooling processes

Most managers said that their cooling processes did not follow all of FDA’s advice. Their processes

  • Were not tested and proven more than a third of the time.
  • Did not include keeping track of food cooling time and temperature more than a third of the time.
  • Did not include checking to see if thermometers were working well about 16% of the time.
What Is EHS-Net?

This study was conducted by the Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net). EHS-Net is a federally funded collaboration of federal, state, and local environmental health specialists and epidemiologists working to better understand the environmental causes of foodborne illness.

Want More Information?

Restaurant Food Cooling Practices pdf icon[PDF – 435 KB] (scientific article this plain language summary is based on)

How Restaurants Cool Food pdf icon[PDF – 250 KB] (fact sheet version of this page)

Food Cooling Practices Study (study information)

More EHS-Net publications by Study Topic

More Food Safety Study Findings in Plain Language

Page last reviewed: June 17, 2019