When you're cooking dinner, the last thing you want to do is serve ribs that smell — or look — off. Nor do you want to dish up bad pork chops that could cause people to fall sick. Fortunately, there are some pretty clear tip-offs when your pork is spoiled.
See the most common signs that your pork has gone bad, as well as insight into what you need to know to avoid food poisoning.
1. It’s Expired
When you purchase meat, you'll typically see a sell-by date listed on the packaging. Retailers use this date to know when to take food off the shelf and throw it out, per Michigan State University.
Use or freeze pork products with a sell-by date within 5 days of purchase, per the USDA.
You may see several dates on the packaging: In addition to the sell-by date, there's also a use-by date, which is a guideline for when to eat (or freeze) the food, per Michigan State University. The expiration date is the date after which you should throw it away.
"For ready-to-eat products, like deli ham, spoilage is not necessarily detectable through your senses, so I always advise going by the use-by date on those types of products," says Catie Beauchamp, PhD, vice president of food science, quality and safety at ButcherBox.
2. It Has Slime
As you might imagine, slime isn't a good sign when it comes to food.
"The biggest tip-off to when pork, or any protein, has gone bad is whether there is a slime-like film covering the product," Beauchamp says. If you spot this — say, on a package of deli ham — throw it out.
Along with slime, a dry or sticky texture is also a bad sign, says Toby Amidor, RD, CDN, food safety expert and best-selling cookbook author.
3. Its Packaging Is Puffy
If the packaging on pork is puffy, it's a sign the pork has gone bad and you should throw it out, Beauchamp says. This occurs when the bacteria in the meat multiply and produce gases, which causes the packaging to bloat.
4. It Smells or Tastes Off
A whiff of something unpleasant when you open up a package of pork — whether it's pork chops, sausage or deli meat — is a sign of spoilage. The odor from spoiled pork can sometimes be bad or sour, Amidor says.
Plus, spoiled pork may taste different. "Hopefully someone is able to detect spoilage before they taste an item," Beauchamp notes.
5. The Color Is Off
"You want to look for fresh pork that is light pink in color and has firm, white fat," Amidor says. An excessively dark color with soft or rancid fat is a sign that it might be spoiled. But color isn't always a decisive factor, Beauchamp points.
"While color may be an indicator of spoilage it doesn't always mean a product is spoiled," she says. That's because the color can change due to oxidation if the package isn't wrapped tightly and oxygen gets in.
"Oxidization is a perfectly normal and safe occurrence," Beauchamp says. Spoilage can occur if there's too much oxygen or too long of an exposure, she says.
You Won’t Always Be Able to Know if Meat Is Bad
You can usually — but not always — tell when food has spoiled, Amidor says. "Older folks may not see or taste as well as they once did and they may not be able to taste or smell anything that is off."
But it's also important to note that spoilage bacteria — that is, the bacteria that change food's smell, texture or appearance — are different from the pathogenic bacteria, aka the bacteria that cause foodborne illness, per the USDA.
These pathogenic bacteria are not detectable with your senses, according to the USDA. This basically means that pork chops or ribs that don't smell funny could still have gone bad.
"That is why it is important to practice time and temperature with all these foods when preparing and handling," Amidor says. Bacteria grow quickly at the "danger zone" temperature (between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit), per the USDA.
And the ensuing foodborne illness can range from uncomfortable to deadly. Each year, there are around 3,000 deaths and 48 million illnesses due to foodborne illness, per the USDA. Eating contaminated pork specifically causes 82 deaths, 2,900 hospitalizations and 525,000 infections in the United States every year, per estimates in an October 2017 study in the journal Epidemiology and Infection.
Eating food that contains pathogenic bacteria and risking food poisoning simply isn't worth it.
"As the saying goes, 'when in doubt, toss it out,'" Amidor says — discard meat that's been exposed to temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for over 2 hours, as it could be contaminated, per the USDA. "Pork, poultry, meat, even tofu are all high-risk foods that can certainly lead to foodborne illness if not handled properly," Amidor says.
Follow These Strategies to Prevent Pork Spoilage
- Keep it cold: Meat should be refrigerated at temperatures below 40°F, per the USDA. Make sure to place pork in the fridge — or freezer — as soon as you get home from the supermarket.
- Check the packaging: "When buying pork, do not purchase anything with broken cartons, dirty wrappers, torn packaging and broken seals," Amidor says.
- Freeze what you won't be using immediately: If you won't be eating the pork you've purchased within two or three days, rewrap and freeze it, Beauchamp recommends. "Freezing products halt the growth of bacteria, which will give the item a longer shelf life. Once you defrost an item, plan to use it within 3 or so days," she says.
- Be careful about thawing: Thaw meat in the fridge, in cold water or in the microwave, not on the counter or in hot water, per the USDA. You can cook pork in the oven or on the stove or grill without thawing it; however, if you're using a slow cooker, it needs to be completely thawed first.
- Michigan State University: "Dates on meat packages – Sell by, use by, freeze by, packaged on, expiration date"
- USDA: "How long is meat or poultry safe to use after the sell-by date?"
- USDA: "Can bacteria grow in the refrigerator?"
- USDA: "Foodborne Illness and Disease"
- Epidemiology and Infection: "Outbreaks attributed to pork in the United States, 1998-2015"
- USDA: "The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods"
- USDA: "What Is the Danger Zone?"