Appearance is a great indicator of whether meat is fresh and safe to eat, though colour change alone does not necessarily mean the meat has gone bad. There are a few factors that influence the look of raw meat, and it takes more than a glance to know whether it’s truly safe for consumption.
Food Handlers should never guess whether meat is safe to serve to customers. Staff should know why raw meat might change colour, follow proper food safety procedures when checking and storing raw meat, and always follow the “if in doubt, throw it out” principle when deciding whether raw meat is safe to cook and serve.
Why does meat turn brown, and what does it mean?
We’ll use the example of raw ground beef. If it begins to brown, the simple reason is that it has been exposed to oxygen. However, there are other explanations as to why raw meat may turn brown, such as its temperature, any exposure to light and microbial growth. Sometimes the meat may be greyish-brown inside, but not due to spoilage. That colour actually indicates a lack of exposure to oxygen, which is normal.
Grocery stores will often discount meat, such as ground beef, that has turned brown, though it’s well within its shelf life. If the meat turns brown or grey on the outside, though, it’s likely not yet unsafe, but it is beginning to rot. Food Handlers should not accept foods that may be close to expiring, as chances are, by the time it reaches the end consumer, it will have gone bad.
Use your senses to help detect spoiled meat
Signs of spoilage on meat, seafood or chicken include the item being slimy, discoloured or having a bad smell. Even though meat may not necessarily be bad, you should err on the side of caution. Look at, touch and smell the meat for important clues about its freshness.
Look: Red meat should be bright red — that’s when it’s at its freshest. If it turns purple or brownish, it is probably still safe to eat, but it has been exposed to some oxygen. As raw chicken spoils, it turns from pink to a greyish colour. It’s best not to serve it to customers.
Touch: Press the meat firmly with your finger. If it’s fresh, it will spring back. If it’s older, it may have lost some of that firmness. It should never feel slimy or sticky.
Smell: Smell the meat to make sure it doesn’t have a strong odour. Most fresh meat will have almost no smell. Lamb may have a slightly gamey scent, but if there is a foul odour, it has almost certainly gone bad.
Food Handlers must never cook and serve meat if they are unsure of its freshness. Know how to check meat for spoilage when purchasing meat or receiving delivery, as well as proper storage practices. Always throw out meat if you are unsure if it has gone bad.
How to check meat for safety upon delivery
When checking deliveries, always:
- Check that meat is delivered at 4°C/40°F or below.
- Ensure frozen meat products are frozen solid and don’t show signs of thawing.
- Make sure meat is tightly wrapped and there are no tears or holes in the packaging.
- Be wary if there is excessive liquid in packaging, which can be an indication that temperature rules are not adhered to. Use a clean, calibrated thermometer to check.
- Check packaging dates and best-before dates.
- Smell the meat — spoiled red meat will have a strong, distinct odour.
- Make sure the meat is not slimy or sticky — this is a common sign of bacterial growth.
If the above requirements are not met, staff should reject the delivery.
How to store meat safely
- Store meat in the refrigerator at 4°C/40°F or below or in the freezer at -18°C/0°F or below.
- Store meat products before less hazardous foods, as meat can only be kept at room temperature for two hours before it must be discarded.
- Keep raw meat away from cooked food in the refrigerator and store it on the bottom shelf, below cooked foods or fresh produce.
- Make sure coolers are equipped with thermometers and employees are checking the temperatures regularly.
- If you grind your own meat in-house, refrigerate and use it within 24 hours, or freeze it.
- Follow the “First In, First Out” (FIFO) method: This means that food purchased first should be used first.
Potentially hazardous foods require caution
Meat is a high-risk, or potentially hazardous, food. High-risk foods are those that have ideal conditions for bacterial growth, therefore are more likely to harbour dangerous bacteria and pathogens like viruses or parasites. High-risk foods are neutral in acidity, high in starch or protein, and are moist.
Meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs — these are high-risk foods that need to be monitored closely with regards to time and temperature to keep bacteria from growing. Food Handlers need to pay extra-close attention when handling these foods to ensure you don’t put customers at risk of a food-borne illness outbreak. Learn more about how to handle meat safely in food service.