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Is smell a reliable way to know whether the meat in my refrigerator is rotten meat? What other signs of spoiled meat should I look for, and what role does ensuring the proper cooking temperature play in killing meat spoilage bacteria?
While a change in odor may be one symptom of spoiled meat, it’s not the only sign you should rely on. If your meat smells unpleasantly pungent, you’re right to toss it, but even if its scent is normal, the meat could still be spoiled. With proper cooking, however, some “rotten” meat may not make you sick — but whether you should eat it is another question.
Meat is a veritable playground for bacteria and fungi and can pose a food safety concern if not properly handled. According to Marianne Gravely at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, two different types of bacteria affect meat: pathogenic bacteria, the kind that can cause food poisoning, and spoilage bacteria, the kind that can grow even at cold temperatures, and cause foods to deteriorate and develop unpleasant odors, tastes and textures. If spoilage bacteria contaminates your meat, your nose will likely know — and you’ll probably prefer not to eat the meat. Pathogenic bacteria, however, can grow rapidly in the “danger zone” — the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit — and your senses won’t be able to detect their presence, Gravely says. If you’re concerned your meat may pose a food safety concern, you must weigh several other factors in determining whether to eat it, and you must properly handle and cook it.
First, consider how long the meat has been in your fridge, noting that temperatures below 40 degrees slow bacterial growth, but don’t halt it completely. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, fully thawed, raw meat will remain safe to eat when stored in the refrigerator for the following time limits: Raw ground meats, poultry and seafood will keep for one to two days; raw roasts, steaks and chops will store for three to five days; and cooked meat, poultry and seafood will be good for three to four days. All meat will remain safe almost indefinitely and retain its flavor up to a year if in the freezer. Meat you have ground fresh at the butcher or that you grind yourself from whole cuts will be less likely to be contaminated with E. coli than vacuum-packed meats shipped to a grocery store from a large packer who combines scraps from many animal carcasses.
Even if the meat is safely within those storage limits, you must thaw, handle and cook it properly to eliminate the risk of food poisoning. Improper handling can significantly increase bacteria populations and the rate at which meat becomes unsafe to eat. Wash your hands before and after handling raw meat. Never thaw meat at room temperature — use a refrigerator or microwave to avoid the danger zone, in which bacteria thrive and quickly multiply. If you have properly stored and thawed your meat to avoid bacterial contamination, cook it to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to kill most harmful microbes. Use a meat thermometer to monitor the temperature, and keep the food piping hot prior to serving and storing it. (You can find cooking temperatures for meat on the Federal Food Safety's website.)
Harold McGee, author of Keys to Good Cooking, notes that microbes aren’t normally present in a piece of meat’s interior, but may exist if the meat has been cut into and will certainly be present in ground meat. So, you can prepare steaks and other whole cuts “rare,” as long as you sear the surface, without worrying about harmful bacteria. Shellfish can contain dangerous viruses that cooking can’t kill, so you should follow proper thawing and cooking instructions carefully. Eat any thawed or fresh shellfish promptly to minimize the risk.
If the meat you’re hoping to devour at dinner has surpassed reasonable storage limits, inspect its color. Discoloration could signal spoilage, though a fading or darkening doesn’t indicate danger. The appearance of green in particular is not good. Surface slime or skin that feels tacky to the touch are also signs of a rotting product. If your meat displays these warning signs, spoilage bacteria could have taken the meat past its prime, meaning you may taste the decay even after thorough cooking.
Amanda Sorell is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine.