Like most foods, meat is best when it's served fresh. And while no one wants to be wasteful, no one should risk getting sick from tainted or spoiled meat. When that beef, pork or poultry is ground up, however, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if it's actually gone bad.
Since best by, sell by and use by dates can be pretty confusing, culinary professionals recommend that home cooks perform their own assessment of any meat products before cooking them.
The first test? Take a look. In general, ground meat should be a varied shade of red or pink. Slight discoloration is natural, but the product package itself may also indicate spoilage.
“From a visual perspective, if you have a piece of meat that's in a bag or vacuum-sealed pouch (and) if it has blown up like a balloon, it's going to be really rotten, so much so, you should not even open the bag,” butcher James Peisker, co-founder of Porter Road, told TODAY Food.
If ground meat passes the visual test, the next step is to touch it. “If the meat is sticky or super slimy, throw it away. Wet and juicy is OK, but you never want your meat to be slimy to the touch,” advised Peisker.
After passing the look and touch tests, then it's time to use your nose. “Different meat has different smells," said Peisker but, generally, rotten meat actually smells slightly sweet. Like other products that have spoiled, ground meat will be especially pungent. Like fresh fish, fresh meat shouldn't really be smelly at all.
Here are some top tips for how to assess the freshness of specific types of meat.
"All beef, including ground beef, is a deep purple until it hits oxygen," Peisker told TODAY. "If it's a deep purple, it was cut and then taken away from oxygen instantly. As the meat hits oxygen, it blooms to a bright red."
Beef actually has the longest shelf life of most ground meats and, assuming it wasn't purchased past its use by date and is freshly ground, should stay fresh in the fridge for five to seven days.
“The meat should always have a nice sheen to it and not [be] gray. The grind should be a coarse grind where you can see the meat,” Josh Capon, executive chef and partner at Lure Fishbar and Bowery Meat Company, said.
When raw beef starts to turn brown or gray (even if it's just a small portion of the package), it's time to perform the smell and touch tests right away. Graying is a natural process that occurs as beef continues to oxidize, but if there is any sticky residue or it smells funky, toss it. If you're still within that five day window and the beef is only a little gray on the outside, but otherwise seems fine, it's OK to consume it. However, if the meat is showing signs of gray or brown discoloration throughout, it's time to say goodbye.
It's also important to keep in mind that ground meat can still go rotten in the freezer. “Large ice crystals (on ground beef) indicate it could be bad, and it could make you sick,” said Peisker. "Also with frozen meat, if there is discoloration, be careful, it's always better to air on the side of safety."
"Ground poultry is the most difficult to see (if it's fresh) visually. It could go bad before it even browns, so that's why you need to eat it immediately," said Peisker. Ground chicken and turkey usually last just two to three days in the fridge.
Freshly ground chicken or turkey will have a light pink hue and virtually no smell. Like raw beef, raw poultry may get slightly gray or brown as it ages but the contrast may not be as obvious, so it's important to sniff it and thoroughly look for any slick or slimy residue before you use it any recipe.
Ground pork and ground sausage
Ground pork will stay fresh up to five days but around day three, you should definitely check the package.
"With grocery store ground pork, it will start to turn brown, but it doesn't have the oxidation like beef does," Peisker said. "Ground pork is often considered the 'other white meat' but ... if you get it from a reputable, high-quality purveyor, it will automatically look darker than what you would see in the grocery store."
When it comes to fresh sausages like bratwurst (which may have dairy in them), they will go bad pretty quickly.
"Anything in a natural casing will also go bad faster," said Peisker, adding that "anything that has a starch in it (potato, rice) will go bad faster, because bacteria loves starches and turns them into sugars — which will increase the growth of bacteria, good and bad."
How long sausage lasts will vary by the type of meat in it, but most sausages will last two to three days in the fridge, and about a month in the freezer.
Of course, with various spices and additives like onions or garlic, fresh sausage can be pretty pungent right off the bat. Chef Justin Burdett of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, told TODAY that "pre-wrapped meats have an odor to them immediately after being opened that will go away after the meat is allowed to breathe a little. However, if the meat still smells after some time out of the packaging, it's likely gone bad."
Sausages also vary in color but like any other ground meat product, once they start to turn a different color, it's likely time to toss it. Touching the sausage, said Burdett, is probably the best way to assess whether it's fresh: "If the ground sausage feels sticky or has a gummy texture, it's past its time and shouldn't be used."
Cooked ground meat
Meal prepping is becoming more and more popular, but if you're cooking up a big batch of ground meat, be prepared to use it up pretty quickly. “Cooked ground (meat), if it's really fresh and not filled with stabilizers and preservatives, it will only last a day or two. But again, utilize the tests above — for anything pre-cooked in a store, use your senses to guide you to a decision,” said Peisker.
When you're cooking ground meat, it's important to keep internal cooking temperatures in mind. For ground beef or pork, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends cooking it to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. For ground poultry, it's 165 degrees.
All tainted meat, whether it's beef, pork, chicken or veal, gets a slimy residue on it when it has gone bad — even in highly processed proteins like bacon and deli meats. “Ever open a pack of hot dogs and find a sticky, slimy translucent goo that stretches as you pull your hot dogs apart?” Vincent Olivieri, chef de cuisine at Fairway Market and Fairway Café and Steakhouse, asked. Anything with that sticky, unattractive slime should definitely be tossed out, even if it is filled with preservatives.
The golden rule? When it doubt, throw it out!
Trust all of your available senses, the experts said, but lean on smell as it is probably the best indicator of spoilage or freshness. Said Olivieri, “Your nose is the most powerful tool when it comes to scoping out bad meat. If it’s got a funk it’s probably ready to go in the trash."