Ground beef is a flexible ingredient used to make burgers, taco meat, spaghetti sauce, and a variety of other dishes.
It accounts for roughly 62% of all beef sold in the United States (1).
However, grinding exposes more of the meat’s surface-to-air, giving spoilage organisms more room to attach. As a result, it spoils more quickly than other larger cuts of meat (2).
There are two types of bacteria that can affect the shelf life of ground meat: sourdough and pathogenic bacteria.
Sourdough bacteria act as prebiotics and are not inherently harmful, but they cause food to lose quality and develop an unpleasant odor and taste (3).
Meanwhile, pathogenic bacteria are dangerous because they can cause food poisoning and increase the risk of many diseases (4).
Therefore, you should always discard ground beef that has gone bad to avoid disease-causing microorganisms.
If you have beef in your fridge and aren’t sure if it’s still good to use, there are a few simple ways to know if it’s spoiled. Just keep in mind that rotten meat should never be eaten!
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Check The Color
Ground beef’s color can change because of a variety of factors, such as temperature, light, microbial growth, and oxygen exposure (5).
Fresh beef will be bright red, but it may have a few brown spots in the middle because ground beef is sourced from various parts of the cow.
The longer you keep your ground beef, the grayer it will become. Because oxygen cannot reach the center of prepackaged beef, it turns brown on the inside.
If all of your ground beef is gray rather than red or brown, it’s best to discard it. Fresh ground beef should be red because of oxymyoglobin, a pigment formed when myoglobin, a protein, reacts with oxygen (6).
Mold can also spoil cooked beef, so discard any leftovers if you notice discolored signs such as blue, grey, or green.
Smell the Ground Beef
Smelling your ground beef is the simplest and quickest way to determine whether it has spoiled. Fresh ground beef will have a slight odor, but bad beef will smell rotten.
The smell changes because of the increased growth of spoilage bacteria, which can also affect the flavor (1).
Avoid eating it if it has a strong odor. Many bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses are not detectable by smell and can be found on fresh beef.
To kill bacteria, always thoroughly cook the beef. Throw away the beef if you don’t feel comfortable eating it.
Even if you don’t detect a strange odor but notice signs of spoilage in color or texture, it’s still best to throw it away because pathogenic bacteria cannot be smelled.
Inspect the texture
Squeeze the meat between your fingers to get a sense of its consistency. Fresh meat should easily break apart and separate into chunks in your fingers.
If your ground meat is sticky or slimy, it has most likely gone bad. A sticky or slimy texture, whether cooked or raw, may, however, show spoilage bacteria (7).
You should toss it right away. Always wash your hands before, and after dealing with raw beef to avoid spreading bacteria and contaminating surfaces.
Check Date on The Packaging
Checking the expiration date is usually the best way to determine whether your ground beef is fresh. A sell-by date shows how long a product can be displayed for sale at a retailer. Ground beef can be refrigerated and eaten safely for up to two days after this date.
Meanwhile, the “best before” date shows when the product is likely to go bad. Before this date, the food will have the best taste and quality. It should not be eaten after its expiration date unless it has been frozen, in which case it can last up to 4 months (8).
When purchasing, read the product label. Check the calendar to see how many days have passed since you bought it, and discard it if it’s out of date.
Storing Ground Beef
As soon as you buy it from the store, place your ground beef in the refrigerator. Raw meat should not be kept at room temperature for any longer than necessary.
If the meat will be used soon, it can be refrigerated or frozen in its original packaging. Keep refrigerated at 40°F or lower and use within one or two days.
Wrap in heavy-duty plastic wrap, aluminum foil, freezer paper, or freezer-safe plastic bags for longer freezer storage. It is best if used within 4 months of purchase.
Risks of Eating Bad Beef
People should take precautions if they suspect that ground beef is contaminated. Spoiled ground beef is dangerous to consume because it contains pathogenic bacteria that cause food-borne diseases.
Symptoms include fever, vomiting, stomach cramps, and bloody diarrhea (9).
Disease-causing microorganisms grow quickly at room temperature and are more likely to occur in spoiled food. Salmonella and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli are the most commonly found harmful bacteria in beef (STEC) (10, 11).
Symptoms may not appear for several days. Cook ground beef and use a meat thermometer to ensure that its internal temperature reaches 160°F (71°C) to destroy these bacteria and reduce your risk of food poisoning (12).
It’s best to avoid eating raw or spoiled ground beef.
When storing beef, it is important to be aware of potential rotting signs.
A few simple techniques, such as observing changes in color, odor, and texture, can help you determine whether your ground beef has gone bad.
Though the bacteria that cause meat to spoil are not harmful, other disease-causing microorganisms may proliferate when it spoils.
Always cook meat and avoid eating spoiled or undercooked ground beef to reduce your risk of illness.