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Meat Smells Like Vinegar: Is It Safe to Eat?

While we all have a role to play in reducing food waste, here’s why you probably want to discard meat if it smells like vinegar.

Have you ever had that moment when you swing open the fridge door, eager to grab those fresh pork steaks or that mound of raw ground beef, only to be smacked by a vinegar smell so overpowering, it turns your stomach?

Talk about an unwelcome surprise! Especially if you had your heart set on pork chops or hamburgers for dinner. In need of answers, you did what any resourceful home cook in your situation would do—you took to your phone and found yourself here with us.

If Meat Smells Sour, Has It Gone Bad?

Fresh raw meat should have a subtly metallic, meaty smell.

While some argue that fresh meat should have no smell at all, it’s widely agreed that its scent should be appetizing (to a carnivore) and barely noticeable.

If the raw meat in your fridge smells like vinegar, that sour smell is a warning sign that the meat has probably gone bad and may no longer be safe to eat. To keep yourself and those you cook for safe, discard the meat immediately.

Can Eating Spoiled Meat Make You Sick?

Rotten meat can be overgrown with harmful bacteria. When ingested in large enough quantities, these bacteria attack the body and cause food poisoning.

Every year, according to the estimates of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million Americans fall victim to foodborne illnesses, resulting in approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and claiming the lives of 3,000 individuals.

Certain individuals face a higher risk of falling ill and experiencing more severe symptoms compared to others. The most vulnerable groups include adults aged 65 and above, children under the age of 5, pregnant women and their unborn babies, as well as individuals with weakened immune systems.1(2022, August 10). People With a Higher Risk of Food Poisoning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/people-at-risk-food-poisoning.html

What Causes Meat to Smell Sour?

Bacteria surround us everywhere. They inhabit the air we breathe, the water we drink, cling to our hands, and even reside within our bodies.

When it comes to food safety, we need to distinguish between two types of bacteria that thrive on it: spoilage bacteria and pathogenic bacteria.2Introduction to the Microbiology of Food. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/food-technology/food-processing-entrepreneurs/microbiology-of-food/

Spoilage bacteria cause meat to turn gray, become slimy and mushy, and smell like vinegar. Contrary to popular belief, the bacteria that make our food spoil are generally harmless—as we’re about to discuss, it’s the other types of bacteria that grow alongside them that make us sick.3Jarvie, M. (2015, October 22). Food spoilage and food pathogens, what’s the difference? MSU Extension. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/food_spoilage_and_food_pathogens_whats_the_difference

One theory suggests that spoilage bacteria generate these odors as a way to compete with humans and larger animals for food. By making our food gross, they get a greater share of it for themselves.

Then Why Is Meat That Smells Sour Dangerous?

Invisible, disease-causing bacteria have the tendency to grow alongside spoilage bacteria.

Put simply, if meat is teeming with spoilage bacteria, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s also overgrowth with bacteria that can make us sick.

Pathogens are invisible to us—they evade our senses and can only be detected through laboratory analysis. Once consumed, these dangerous bacteria launch an assault on their host and cause food poisoning.4(2022, December 19). Foodborne Germs and Illnesses. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/people-at-risk-food-poisoning.html

Depending on the extent of bacterial growth, the consequences of eating rotten meat can range from severe abdominal pain to potentially life-threatening foodborne illness.

Won’t Cooking the Meat Make It Safe to Eat?

There’s a common and dangerous misconception that cooking spoiled meat can make it safe to eat.

While it holds true that heat can eliminate bacteria, certain bacterial strains have the ability to form heat-resistant spores, enabling their survival even after cooking. Other bacteria leave behind toxins within the meat, which pose an equally serious threat to our well-being.5Johns Hopkins Medicine. Food Poisoning. Conditions and Diseases. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/food-poisoning6Iammarino, M., Berardi, G., Tomasevic, I., & Nardelli, V. (2023). Effect of Different Cooking Treatments on the Residual Level of Nitrite and Nitrate in Processed Meat Products and Margin of Safety (MoS) Assessment. Foods (Basel, Switzerland)12(4), 869. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods12040869

Hence, it’s important to recognize that no amount of cooking can salvage meat that has already gone bad. The only reasonable course of action is to err on the side of caution and throw the spoiled meat away.

In What Cases Does Meat Go Bad?

As a general guideline, meat goes bad when stored for an extended period at temperatures over 0°F (-18°C).

The bacteria that make meat go bad need food, warmth, and moisture. If meat is left out at room temperature, it is exposed to the temperature range that food safety experts call “the danger zone.”

Within the temperature range of 40°F (4.4°C) to 140°F (60°C), bacterial growth happens rapidly, and bacteria doubling their numbers every 20 minutes.7Messing, L. (2015, April 26). Food Danger Zone. MSU Extension. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/food_danger_zone In a mere hour, an initially harmless count of 200 bacteria can swiftly multiply to 400, subsequently reaching 800, until they’ve surged to a dangerous population of 1,600.

Refrigeration, slows down the growth of bacteria, but doesn’t entirely stop it. Even when stored in the refrigerator, meat will eventually go bad and need to be disposed of if not cooked within a few days.

Meat frozen at 0°F (-18°C) is always safe to eat.8(2023, January 18). Are You Storing Food Safely? US Food & Drug Administration. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/are-you-storing-food-safely However, the freezer isn’t meant for storing meats indefinitely. While the meat’s safety is guaranteed, its quality isn’t. The meat’s aroma, texture, and taste will slowly but surely degrade over time.

Bottom Line

If a package of raw meat in your fridge smells sour, this is a sign that it has gone bad and can make you sick. Since cooking the meat won’t make it safe to eat again, the only thing left to do from a food safety perspective is to throw it away.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.