If Your Meat Looks Like This, Today Is the Last Safe Day to Eat It, Experts Say
Here's how to know it's last call for your meat products.
When it comes to food safety, ensuring that your meat is fresh should be among your top priorities. That's because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "raw foods of animal origin are the most likely to be contaminated" with harmful bacteria such as E. coli, Campylobacter, and Salmonella.
However, throwing out meat when it's still safe out of an abundance of caution may mean you're wasting not only food, but your hard-earned money, too. The key is to recognize safe signs of normal aging in meat, and to cook it before it's too late. Read on to find out which signs of meat spoilage you should never ignore if you want to protect your health and how to keep perfectly good food from going to waste.
If your meat is starting to turning brown, now is the time to eat it.
There's a common misconception that meat that has turned somewhat brown in color has already gone bad. In reality, meat changes color during storage as the myoglobin molecules inside of it are exposed to oxygen. While meat that is beginning to change color is often still safe to eat, experts say that this does signal that it was packaged at least a few days prior, meaning the time to cook it is now.
"Brown meat doesn't mean it's bad," Jeffrey Savell, PhD, a professor of Meat Science at Texas A&M University, told HuffPost in 2016. "But [grocery stores] will discount it, mark it down. If you buy brown meat, just be sure to cook it right away, because it's likely already been out there for three or four days."
A change in scent or feel can tip you off to a more serious problem.
A color change doesn't necessarily mean it's too late to sear that steak, but it does mean you should double check for other signs of spoilage. "It's not unusual to see that off color," Argyris Magoulas, a specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), told INSIDER. "The color of meat sometimes changes. If it doesn't smell or have stickiness and was bought by the 'sell by' date, it should be okay. If it's smelling and sticky, then you don't want it."
Magoulas adds that ground meat should always be used within one to two days of purchase, and other cuts of meat should be consumed within three to five days for optimal freshness and safety. Never taste the meat to decide whether or not it's safe.
Some manufacturers treat their meat to change its color.
Just as a brown cut of meat hasn't necessarily gone bad, red cuts of meat aren't necessarily fresh. According to The New York Times, some meat producers treat their products with carbon monoxide in order to preserve the desirable red hue that consumers associate with freshness. "It sticks like a leech to myoglobin's iron atom, turning the molecule a distinctive cherry red and preventing it from reacting with anything else, oxygen included," the Times reports. "There's concern that carbon monoxide treatment may mislead consumers into eating fish and meat that's old enough to have begun spoiling," the publication adds.
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There's a simple way to keep your meat fresher for longer.
If you're not sure that you'll get around to eating the meat in your fridge within a safe time frame, your best bet is to freeze it. If you do so, make sure that you keep it properly wrapped to avoid freezer burn.
However, if you do plan to eat your meat soon, you can store it on the bottom shelf of your fridge in its original packaging. To avoid cross contamination, you may also consider wrapping your meat in an additional layer of plastic. If you do have meat in the fridge, open your refrigerator as infrequently as possible, as changes in temperature can cause your meat and other foods to spoil faster. And, as always, be sure to follow the CDC's golden rule for food safety: "When in doubt, throw it out."