Just how long can you leave meat out before they are no longer safe to eat? Here’s what food safety experts have to say on the matter.
As carnivores, we relish the succulent taste of meat, be it a juicy steak, tender pork chop, roasted bird, or smoked brisket.
However, as we indulge in meat’s delights, we tend to overlook a crucial aspect of food safety: how long can meat be left out before it poses a health risk?
Food safety is an issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 48 million Americans fall ill with a foodborne illness annually, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.1(2018, November 5). Burden of Foodborne Illness: Overview. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/estimates-overview.html
These statistics are sobering to say the least. They also serve as a wake-up call about the importance of storing perishable foods properly, especially when it comes to meat.
To keep yourself and those you cook for safe, you need to know how long meat can sit out and how to store meat from a food safety perspective.
How Long Can Meat Be Left Out?
|Food Item||Shelf Life|
|Raw meat, refrigerated or frozen||2 hours at room temperature (1 hour if it’s 90°F or warmer out)|
|Cooked meat||2 hours at room temperature (1 hour if it’s 90°F or warmer out)|
If you leave meat it at room temperature for too long, it turns into a breeding ground for harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that meat, no matter if raw or cooked, should not be left out for more than 2 hours at room temperature. On hot days, if the outside temperature is at or above 90°F, the time limit drops to 1 hour.2USDA (2023, March 23). Is if safe to consume perishable food (such as meat or poultry) that has been left out at room temperature? AskUSDA. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/Is-food-safe-if-left-out-overnight
By following proper food safety guidelines and ensuring that we don’t leave raw or cooked meat out for longer than we really should, we can reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses and protect ourselves and our loved ones from getting sick.
How Long Can Raw Meat Sit Out?
According to food safety experts, raw meat should not be left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. However, if the outside temperature is 90°F or higher, that time limit is reduced to just 1 hour.
If you’re shopping for meat at the grocery store, it’s best to add it to your cart last and head straight home once you’re done.
Running errands with raw meat in your car’s trunk can lead to unsafe conditions and can make the meat unsuitable for consumption before you even make it back home.
Once you’ve made it home with your meat, be sure to unpack it first and store it in the coldest part of your refrigerator—the meat drawer or lowest shelf above the crisper drawer.
Depending on the type of meat, the storage times may vary.
For instance, red meat and poultry can be safely refrigerated for 3 to 5 days, while ground meat and fish should be used within 1 to 2 days. For best quality, raw meat should be cooked or frozen the day it is purchased.
How Long Can Cooked Meat Sit Out?
Cooked meat should not be left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. In hot weather (90°F or higher), the time limit is 1 hour.
If you’re serving cooked meat, it’s best to do so shortly after removing it from the heat and allowing it to rest.
If you’re serving steaks, chops, or fillets, they typically need to rest for about 3 minutes after being removed from the heat.3Messing, L. (2022, May 11). Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart. Food Safety and Inspection Service. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/safe-temperature-chart This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat, resulting in a more tender and flavorful dish.
On the other hand, larger cuts of meat like roasts and smoked meats need a longer resting period to reach the ideal temperature and texture. Plan on allowing these types of meats to rest for at least 15 minutes before carving and serving, sometimes longer.
If you don’t plan on eating the cooked meat within two hours, there are two safe options to choose from: One is to hold it at an internal temperature of 140°F or higher, and the other is to cool it down quickly and refrigerate or freeze it.
How Long Can You Leave Frozen Meat Out for Thawing?
Never thaw raw meats by leaving them out. Leaving frozen meat out at room temperature to thaw is a bad idea and can put your health—as well as the health of the people you cook for—risk.
When meat is exposed to room temperature, it provides an ideal environment for disease-causing bacteria to grow rapidly. This can lead to food poisoning once the meat is cooked and eaten, causing serious illness or even hospitalization in some cases.
Most at risk are children younger than 5 years of age, adults aged 65 years or older, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and those who have a compromised immune system or are recovering from an illness.4(2022, August 10). People With a Higher Risk of Food Poisoning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/people-at-risk-food-poisoning.html
To avoid this potential health hazard, it’s best to thaw meat in the refrigerator, using a microwave or in ice water, replacing the water every 30 minutes. These methods ensure that the meat stays at a safe temperature while thawing, reducing the risk of bacterial growth.
Why Leaving Meat Out Isn’t Safe
Bacteria, those tiny microorganisms invisible to the naked eye, are found everywhere, including in the kitchen. And if you’re not careful, they can multiply rapidly on your food and cause food poisoning.
What do these bacteria need to survive and thrive?
Three things: food, warmth, and moisture. And unfortunately, meat provides all three when left out at room temperature.
Meat is a delicious source of protein and moisture. It also presents a breeding ground for bacteria. When raw, its moisture content ranges from 56 to 71%. When cooked, meat has a moisture content of between 55 and 65%.5USDA (2013, August 6). Water in Meat & Poultry. Food Safety and Inspection Service. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/water-meat-poultry
Room temperature falls within “the danger zone,” the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F, where bacteria multiply most rapidly and double in count roughly every 20 minutes.6Messing, L. (2022, October 24). Keeping Foods Out of the Temperature Zone. Safe Food & Water. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/resources/keeping_foods_out_of_the_temperature_danger_zone_e3254
In just one hour, 200 bacteria can turn into 400, then 800, then 1,600. Within two hours, that number reaches a staggering 12,800, enough to make you or somebody else at the table sick.
Will Cooking Or Reheating Meat Make It Safe to Eat?
Many people believe that they can leave raw meat out at room temperature for an extended period of time, and then cook or reheat it to make it safe to eat. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception that can have serious consequences.
While heat exposure kills harmful bacteria, some bacterial strains are capable of forming spores that can survive cooking. Additionally, other bacteria can leave behind toxins in the meat that can cause foodborne illness, even if the meat is cooked properly or reheated thoroughly.7University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Will Reheating Food Make It Safe If You Forget to Refrigerate It? UNL Food. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://food.unl.edu/article/will-reheating-food-make-it-safe-if-you-forget-refrigerate-it
If you suspect that raw meat has been sitting out at room temperature for too long, err on the side of caution and discard it.
Keep cold meat cold, refrigerated at 40°F or below, and warm meat warm, held at an internal temperature of 140°F or higher. Never let meat, no matter if it’s raw or cooked, to sit out for longer than 2 hours (1 hour on a hot day, if it’s 90°F or warmer out).
Discard meat if it’s sat out for longer than this time window, even if it looks, smells, and tastes fine. Remember that cooking or reheating the meat won’t necessarily make it safe to eat, and that the bacteria that sicken us are invisible to our senses.
To keep yourself and those you cook for safe, practice rule number one of food safety: when it doubt, throw it out. While we all have a role to play in preventing food waste, the risk of contracting foodborne illness is simply not worth the gamble.You've voted for this post