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Here is how you can tell for yourself if those deeply discounted meats are a windfall of savings waiting to make a delicious dinner.

By Su-Jit Lin
February 11, 2021
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hands holding a package of meat in the grocery store
Credit: sergeyryzhov / Getty Images

I'm a pro budget shopper and loud and proud of it. But what people may not realize is that this status means being a bold and fearless consumer, willing to try new proteins and produce… and old ones too. In some cases, especially old.

I throw caution to the wind and laugh at the face of perceived food danger. Because, yes, I will accept 30 percent off that meat to the horror and consternation of my fellow shoppers. Absolutely will I take up to $5 off the package of chicken whose moisture pack has begun to burgeon, ground turkey that looks a little limpid, and beef whose tint is a little less rosy than its newer neighbors. I will also feel smug and superior as a bargain hunter and eco-conscious consumer doing my part to reduce food waste in America. And I totally encourage you try the same on all of the above counts.

First of all, let's be clear: dates on meat packaging are not even required by the USDA. In fact, sell by, best by, and use by dates are slapped on voluntarily, and you'll notice that none of them will flat-out say "expires by" anymore. Why? Well, shelf-life of meat aisle products are dependent on a variety of factors: storage, preparation, shipment, packaging, and others. That means that there are no hard and fast rules about how long something can or should be on the shelves before they're beyond consumption—these are determined by the stores themselves, and the previously mentioned conditions have everything to do with how fast the meat goes bad.

But meanwhile, the USDA estimates that sadly, 30 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels due to misunderstanding of these voluntary date labels. And that's an enormous shame. Learn how to know when packaged meat is still safe to eat:

What's the Difference Between Date Categories?

They're pretty straightforward, and there are no regulations on which date to go by. The sell-by date is akin to a Post-It note to the retailer, making sure that older packages are at the front of the display case and next in line to get marked down. These are great to make note of if you're planning on stalking the end-of-the-line proteins and want to get an idea of when new shipments are due to arrive. They'll get marked down right before the new batch to make room.

The "Best if Used by" and "Use By" dates are recommendations for peak quality. In other words, that's the store asking you not to judge their meat by the ones edging toward this date. These cuts may not be as tasty or juicy as meat that was just butchered and put out, but they're perfectly fine to consume if properly packed and stored. If it's airtight, not leaking, and kept in the chiller, this meat will even keep a few days after you bring it home. After all, it's important to remember that these dates indicate only quality—not safety. If handled properly, your protein should be good as new for several days beyond what any sticker says.

How Are Quality Dates Determined?

As we established, there isn't any universal standard for labeling. Which means there aren't any set standards for what is considered the peak meatiness of the meat. Instead, manufacturers and retailers just go by how long it'll stay closest to its just-packaged state as a baseline for deciding what "best" looks like.

However, a few guidelines do exist based on best preservation practices. According to the USDA, the factors that affect how long a product stays good include the length of time and temperature at which a food is held during distribution through display, the characteristics of the food item, and the type of packaging used. The better the packaging and the more preservatives in the formula, the longer the salable date.

This explains why chicken you get from one store may not last as long in your fridge as chicken from another despite you not doing anything differently, or why certain sausages hold onto their color and flavor longer than others. They simply are—as indicated on the label—better before the printed dates by virtue of packaging and handling. After that, the quality starts to go downhill, and it just won't taste or feel as good.

Judging a Beef By Its Color

When it comes to fresh, risk-free meat, beef should be red, pork should be pink, and chicken should be a peachy hue, right? Well, not necessarily! Yes, those are the ideal colors of these common proteins, but variations of them shouldn't have you sending them to the trash. These shades are pretty short-lived in nature, actually, and requires thoughtful packaging to preserve them, such as plastic wrap that will allow oxygen to pass through it. Because that red and pink we're used to seeing? That's not "natural," either—it's just the effect of myoglobin fixed in tissue cells when this purplish protein makes contact with oxygen.

The color the meat takes on when butchered is also influenced by the animal itself. Is it older, male or female, active, or fed a specific diet? All of these can make meat appear darker. Exposure to store lighting can also add a brownish tint to your red meats, as can oxidation of, say, roast beef. On the other end of the spectrum, ground beef can also go gray for lack of oxygen. Another off-putting color is a slightly green tinge, particularly in cured meats, which may also go iridescent. In the former, you'll want to exercise caution, but per the USDA states for the latter, "Iridescence does not represent decreased quality or safety of the meat." Its occurrence is due to the breakdown of pigments in meat compounds such as iron and fat when air and light touch down on those molecules.

In addition, meat can also fade and lose vivacity from being frozen or changing refrigeration systems. Raw poultry is particularly prone to this, especially as its apt to lightness and colors can range from yellow to blue-white and every shade in between.

What this means for you as a consumer is that you shouldn't dismiss or toss meat just because it doesn't look store display-bright anymore. Those clearance meats aren't rotting—they're just undergoing some chemical changes due to their environment. And if all other signs point to yes, they'll taste and look the same once cooked as their more vivacious counterparts. Put it on your menu for ASAP and you'll be well within the safe range.

The Nose Knows

Ah, the good ol' sniff test. When it comes to meat, it can't be beat.

The greatest, most blatant indicator of spoilage for meat is if it has a distinct odor. It'll be a little sour, and your spidey sense will tingle that something feels "off." This is due to the growth of microorganisms such as yeast, mold, and spoilage bacteria, the latter of which triggers deterioration of the meat and can make it taste very seriously "funny." This is not necessarily caused by time since butchering, but again, packaging that makes the environment overly friendly for this type of growth. The more favorable conditions for spoilage bacteria—like the right levels of moisture and low temperatures—the faster it grows and the sooner your meat rots.

However, confusingly, that doesn't mean you'll get sick from this, either, provided that it's been handled safely and chilled consistently. But that's not to say you'll want to eat it! It's actually pathogenic bacteria that will make you ill. That includes the likes of salmonella, E. coli, listeria, and their ilk. And although viruses can't technically grow on food, they can be transmitted through immediate surface contact while it's alive, which is why you can catch a cold, for instance, from eating sneezed-on food.

Either way, if there's a certain stink to it, toss it. And if it's sticky, tacky, slimy, or unsettlingly dry, it's on its last legs and it's up to you how much of a betting person you're willing to be. If the two are combined, the odds are likely not in your favor.

Playing It Safe in the Danger Zone

Still with us? Okay, good, because here's where we tell you how to beat the system.

Freezing

As we've reiterated, different types of meat and their respective packaging have everything to do with how long it's good for and how safe it is to buy, printed dates notwithstanding. The most important factors are to store it below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (if not shelf stable), secure it in tight, non-leaking packaging, and keep it away from light.

Now for using it: first of all, prepare to cook your cheap treasure as close to your purchase or best by date as possible. Not only does the car ride shorten your food's life, but your home refrigeration may do the same since it's not designed for long-term commercial storage. You can typically push it for up to four days past the label date, but any longer is a stretch. Either way, store it on the bottom shelf so that any juices don't drip into your produce, and far toward the back, the coldest part of your fridge. This small measure of placement will be the difference between whether you have a day or several left on your bargain buy.

If your haul is bigger than your meal plan, freeze it right away. Raw will keep for typically six to eight months for most meats, which means you can hold onto bacon, pork, beef, veal, lamb, turkey, and even fish for well over half a year in your icebox. Hardy chicken will last you up to an entire year!

Cooked meats, like fajita strips or chicken tenders and burgers will remain in good shape for longer in the refrigerator—for five to eight days—but surprisingly, not quite as long as raw meat in the freezer. You'll want to watch out for freezer burn, which will look like dull white patches in the meat. It's not unsafe to eat, but it'll taste like stale freezer and be dry. Because of this, try to use cooked foods that are frozen within a few weeks to two months from freezing.

With anything you freeze, just make sure it's mummified in as airtight of a manner as you can manage, and pop it into a tightly sealed container to maximize its storage time. I like to stock up on chicken breast fillets, slicing them horizontally into cutlets for easy grilling, and freezing them in single layers on a baking sheet, then in plastic bags. Pork chops, lamb chops, and other bone-in cuts also benefit from single-layer freezing so that they don't obnoxiously stick together and will both freeze and defrost evenly. I also separate my ground meats into portions appropriate for my household for easy thawing. Batch freezing shrimp also works well; shelled will last about three months, while shell-on will stay good for up to six months, whether you buy it raw or not.

You can even freeze sealed deli meat for a rainy day, provided you use it up within 5 days of opening. It'll last for six to eight months, and unopened cured meats like hot dogs, salami, and pepperoni can also be stored in the freezer and emerge good as new if taken out before the six-month mark.

Thawing

The most important thing you'll need to adhere to is proper thawing if you're doing the deep freeze method. Plan to cook it within two days after refrigerator thawing if it's raw, and if your plans change and you have to toss it back into the freezer, expect some quality and flavor loss.

If you're nuking the ice out, cook it immediately, as partially cooking the raw meat will create an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, negating your bargain shopping best efforts. Even if you need to re-freeze it, cook it thoroughly before doing so. The same rule applies for cold-water thawing as for microwave defrosting—just beware water leakage into the meat container, which may make the meat fall apart as it absorbs water, or introduce bacteria.

Can't be bothered to defrost? Go ahead and cook it from frozen. Just be prepared to have it over heat for 50 percent longer than if it were fully thawed.

Bottom Line

As you can see, that clearance meat score could be a windfall of savings. You can easily stock the freezer with these bargain buys and never blink an eye at using them when you're ready. The rules are simple, and the dates far more flexible than retailers would have consumers believe. So go ahead and proudly scoop up the last-of-the-shipment baby backs, chicken thighs, ribeye steaks, and turkey tenderloins. You've got all the time in the world.

This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com

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