So a package of meat spoiled in your fridge before you could cook it. You can tell because it’s a day or two past the expiration date printed on the package, the meat has a foul, rotten smell, and its surface has a slight grayish to greenish hue to it.
Now, you found yourself wondering: should you throw it away—as your gut is kind of telling you to do—or will cooking it at a high enough temperature and for a long enough time make it safe to eat?
Cooking spoiled meat won’t make it safe to eat. Though it can kill the bacteria and molds that populated it, it won’t get rid of the toxins and spores that they left in it. To avoid food poisoning, throw out raw meat when it’s past its expiration date or if you suspect that it’s spoiled.
This is a good thing to do whenever you spot spoiled meat in the fridge or freezer since, unless it’s discarded, other members of your household can also make the mistake of cooking and eating it.
What Causes Meat to Spoil?
Meat, whether we’re talking beef, pork, lamb, poultry, or seafood, spoils because it gets overpopulated by molds and a genus of bacteria that feeds on the sugars and proteins in the muscle tissue. With the animal no longer alive, its cells have no way of protecting themselves against these microorganisms.
As a byproduct of its feast, that bacteria breaks down the muscle tissue into amino acids and a number of foul-smelling compounds, including ammonia, amines, and hydrogen sulfide, which is what gives spoiled meat its face-twitchingly foul odor.
It also secretes harmful toxins that can cause food poisoning that will stay stable when exposed to high heat, even after coming into contact with your scorching-hot grill’s grates or the heat radiated by your skillet or oven during cooking. The molds can also be responsible for toxic, temperature-stable compounds in the meat.
So if you take away one thing from reading this article, let it be this:
Though it’s true that long enough exposure to a temperature of 140°F to 165°F will eliminate most of the microorganisms in raw meat, such as molds and bacteria, it won’t necessarily inactivate the poisons that they left inside it.
What Makes Spoiled Meat Unsafe to Eat?
Setting aside the mushy texture, off odor, and funky taste of spoiled meat for a second… there’s a more pressing reason why you should never eat meat that’s gone bad.
According to Johns Hopkins, spoiled meat can give you food poisoning because of the toxins produced by the bacteria that once grew in it. Mild cases of food poisoning mimic the symptoms of a stomach flu; severe cases can result in hospitalization and death.
Known as Pseudomonas fragi, those toxin-producing bacteria thrive at room temperature. Its activity slows down drastically at a temperature of 40°F in your fridge and nearly grinds to a halt at 0°F in the freezer (Kenyon University).
The spoilage can happen faster or slower depending on the meat’s pH, water content, storage temperature, oxygen availability, and the amount of microbes (bacteria, fungi, and others) already present in the package before you bought it (Wiley Online Library).
So if you opened your fridge and found a spoiled brisket, don’t risk it: think of your and your family’s health and throw it in the bin instead.
All in all, fresh meat is one of those perishable foods that you never keep in the fridge or freezer for a long time. Plan your meals accordingly and, if you stocked up on your favorite cut of beef, pork, or lamb at a discount at the grocery store, freeze them for long-term storage.
How Long Does Raw Meat Last?
Generally, raw meat lasts for 2 hours when left out at room temperature on the counter, 1-3 days in its original packaging in your fridge, and 6-9 months in a freezer bag or food storage container in your freezer.
Though this applies to all kinds of meat, you should always sanity-check by looking at the expiration date, giving the thawed meat a whiff, and looking for a gray to green hue on the surface, all of which are tell-tale signs of spoilage.
Keep in mind that freezing inactivates the bacteria found in meat, but it won’t kill it. The bacterial breakdown will resume at full speed as soon as you’ve thawed the meat, so you should cook it immediately. For the same reasons, thaw meats overnight in your fridge and never leave them out on the counter for longer than an hour or two.
Also, only freeze meats before their expiration date; freezing spoiled meat won’t make it safe to eat in the first place.