At one time or other you will no doubt have rummaged in the fridge and found some out-of-date meat at the back you've forgotten about. Is the sell-by date on meat something to follow religiously, or can you happily scarf down ground beef four days after the sell-by date and get away with it?
You can consume meat or chicken beyond the expiration date if your eyes and nose tell you the product is safe. But only do so if you are very sure it has been safely stored and handled.
It's a dilemma that you don't want to fall on the wrong side of as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that raw or undercooked meat and poultry are the foods most likely to be contaminated with bacteria and therefore among the prime culprits for causing food poisoning.
Raw poultry often contains Campylobacter and may also contain Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens. Raw meat may contain Salmonella, E. coli, Yersinia and other bacteria.
Fortunately there are some common sense guidelines that will help you to decide whether to throw expired meat away or eat it. And the good news is that it's not always the case that expired meat needs to go straight in the trash.
Understanding Expiration Dates
Except for on infant formula, dates are not an indicator of a food's safety and are not required by federal law. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that there are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels in the U.S., and that the use-by or sell-by date on meat is designed to help consumers and retailers decide when it is of best quality, not when to discard it.
It's not just a sell-by date on meat that you'll come across — you may see any or these terms:
- A "best if used by/before" date: Indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality (not a safety date).
- A "sell-by" date: A steak sell-by date (for example), isn't meant for the consumer. Instead it tells the store how long to display a product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- A "use-by" date: The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date, except for when used on infant formula.
- A "freeze-by" date: Indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality (not a safety date).
Judge With Your Senses
Rather than using dates as a guide, the USDA says you can generally use your nose and eyes to gauge if meat and poultry is still safe and wholesome to eat. So, for example, instead of religiously following a steak sell-by date, you can check to make sure the meat has not developed an off odor, flavor or slimy texture instead.
However, it's only safe to use your senses as a guide if you are confident the meat has been stored and handled safely. The USDA explains that given the right conditions, dangerous bacteria that cause food poisoning may develop without the food spoiling.
Meat and poultry that has been unsafely dealt with — for example has been left at room temperature on the counter too long — might look fine and be in date, but could still be dangerous to eat.
Spoilage bacteria on the other hand, develop at the low temperatures in your fridge. Ironically though, they cause food to develop off tastes and smells, and you would not choose to eat spoiled food, if you did, you probably would not get sick.
Meat Expiration Dates: Raw Meat
For raw meat or poultry you've purchased that doesn't have any dates the FoodKeeper app available at FoodSafety.gov recommends these storage times (after purchase) for freshness and quality:
- Ground meat (beef, turkey lamb and pork): one to two days
- Meat steaks and joints (e.g., lamb leg, beef steaks, pork loin chops): three to five days
- Poultry parts (e.g., chicken legs and thighs): one to two days
- Whole chicken/turkey: one to two days
To recap, these are just for peak quality and if the meat or poultry still looks and smells good — and, crucially, has been kept cold — it should still be safe to eat beyond these time frames as long as you cook it properly.
To ensure that the bacteria on raw meat are killed during cooking, use the correct internal temperature. Use of a food thermometer is recommended, with the FoodKeeper app advising that chicken and turkey should reach an internal temperature of 165 F and beef, lamb and pork joints and steaks 145 F. Ground meat, including homemade hamburgers should be 160 F in the middle.
One word of caution: Be leery of raw meat that you accidentally left out of the fridge, or you know has been kept too warm. The USDA defines a "danger zone" between 40 F to 140 F at which bacteria levels can double in number in as little as 20 minutes. If raw meats have been left in the danger zone for too long, bacteria may grow and produce heat resistant toxins that are not destroyed, even by proper cooking.
Regardless of the meat expiration date, a steak sell-by date or how the meat or poultry looks or smells, in a situation where you know raw meat hasn't been kept at the right temperature, be safe and discard it.
Meat Expiration Dates: Cooked Meat
Pre-cooked deli meats and poultry purchased from the grocery store and eaten cold are more risky as there is no cooking step to destroy bacteria. In this case the sell-by date needs to be followed more closely. For pre-cooked meats and leftovers that don't have any dates on them the USDA FoodKeeper app recommends these keeping times (in the fridge) for safety and quality:
- Pre-packaged ham/luncheon/deli meat: three to five days (after opening)
- Hard, dry pepperoni sausage, sliced: two to three weeks
- Meat paté: one week
- Bone-in whole ham: one week
- Meat or poultry leftovers: three to four days
Again, how cooked meat or poultry is kept will influence safety regardless of any expiration date on the pack. For example the USDA says that if cold chicken salad is taken to a picnic and left out at temperatures higher than 40 F for more than two hours (one hour if temperatures are 90 F or higher), the product should not be consumed. It always pays to make sure you practice good hygiene and follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label.
Check Fridge and Freezer Temperatures
The USDA says it's essential that your home refrigerator should be kept at 40 F or below. Store-purchased meat and poultry should be brought home and refrigerated as quickly as possible, remembering that raw meat should be thoroughly wrapped and placed at the bottom of the fridge to avoid any cross-contamination with cooked items.
Some refrigerators have built-in thermometers to measure their internal temperature, but for those without this feature, you should use your own thermometer to monitor.
The USDA recommends that perishable foods — which include raw and cooked meat and poultry — should not be kept in the fridge door. This is because the temperature here fluctuates more than in the cabinet. Keep the door closed as much as possible.
Freezing causes bacteria to enter a dormant stage according to the USDA. So properly handled meat or poultry stored in a freezer at 0 F will be safe indefinitely.