Expired Meat: How Long Is Meat Good For After Sell-By Date?

Is Expired Meat Dangerous or a Deal?

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Want to see people turn up their noses in disgust? Just mention that you often purchase expired meat or meat that is going out of code.

“Code” refers to the date placed by a grocer or manufacturer on a grocery item revealing its use-by, sell-by or freeze-by date.

We did an interview on ABC’s 20/20 with Elizabeth Vargas. When she saw a video clip of Steve selecting some discounted ham in a grocery store, she was puzzled.

She said, “You are picking up bargains on items most of us would avoid, like expiring meat.”

She continued, “Most people don’t want to buy meat that is expiring today. Why are you buying it, and more importantly, stocking up on it?”

Is Expired Meat Safe to Eat?

What does the sell-by-date on meat mean? What a great question. Many consumers believe that meat that is close to, or beyond the “sell-by date” must be “no good.” They believe that it should be disposed of immediately. They think it’s unclean, inedible, and likely to make one who eats it violently ill.

We spoke with Dave, a long-time grocery store employee. He started in the meat department at a large grocery chain and worked his way up to assistant store manager.

He said that “in the old days,” butchers would un-package meat when it started turning a “green.” He would trim off the “bad parts” and then repackage it for sale.

What didn’t sell in the next few days, they’d cook and sell at a higher price or add to the ground beef mix in the back room.

The thought of unknown-quality meat going into ground beef may turn you into a vegetarian. This is one reason we grind our own beef (read about saving money on meat here).

But let’s evaluate the meat coding system. 

Is Food Dating Required by Federal Law?

No. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not require the stamping of meat expiration dates. They say, “Except for infant formula and some baby food products, dating is not generally required by Federal regulations.”

Poultry producers are required to stamp the date their product is packaged. However, stores affix their own sell-by or use-by dates.

Furthermore, individual states have their own regulations regarding product labeling.

What do Food Dating Codes Really Mean?

Here is how the USDA defines various types of dating on meat packages:

  • A “Sell by date tells the store how long to display the product. You should buy the product before this date passes.
  • A Best-if-used-by date (or -before) is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A Use-by date is the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality. The product manufacturer determines this date.

Is Expiring Meat Safe to Buy?

The USDA Web site states, “After the date passes, while not of the best quality, the product should still be safe if handled properly and kept at 40°F or below.”

We immediately freeze meat that is close to going out of code to halt the loss of quality and reduce bacterial risk. Remember that meat’s sell-by date is a “guesstimate” from the manufacturer.

Have you ever seen questionably colored meat in the butcher case days before going out of code? Your eyes are your best guide in determining the quality of the meat you are purchasing.

What Kind of Meat to Avoid Buying

Leakers Our friend Dave’s term for meat that is awash in excess water and blood, which may contain bacteria.

Puffers When vacuumed-packed meats lose their airtight seal and become inflated. Either air or bacteria may cause the problem.

Discolored Meat that looks a little green or darker brown, indicating loss of quality, Avoid it no matter what its code date.

Use Your Senses

Using your common sense and your eyes, you can choose meat going out of code that will be safe for your family to eat. So yes, a package of expired meat tomorrow is safe to buy today.

Oregon State University College of Health and Human Services published a food resource guide years ago. The guide said to dispose of meat that exhibits any one of the following:

Foul Odor is Often due to microbial growth. Putrefaction may have occurred in protein foods with accompanying sewage-like odors.

Surface Slime Often, but not always, due to high bacterial counts.

Mold Exceptions are old-fashioned, cured ham and cheeses that are mold-ripened.

The document from OSU is no longer available on their website.

Packaging Meat Makes a Difference

Meat wrapped in a thin plastic wrap on a Styrofoam tray can be frozen for up to three months, but you will see deterioration — drying out of the meat. We have stored meats such as turkeys and corned beef vacuum-sealed in heavy plastic for up to one year with no noticeable loss in quality.

Paul VanLandingham, Ed.D., is a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University. He said regarding vacuum-sealed meats, “This can double the shelf life. The item will be as good as the day it was packaged.”

Carlos, a butcher, and former Navy cook told us more about frozen meat storage. He said it was routine to stock a ship’s walk-in freezer with two years’ worth of frozen turkeys. This was done prior to a one-year tour of duty. He said, “Those birds store great in that thick plastic wrapping.”

So buying a package that will be expired meat tomorrow and sticking it in the freezer, stops the deterioration process. This meat will be fine to eat, several weeks from now.

Home Vacuum Sealers

When we cut up and repackage large cuts of meat, we always triple-wrap them in plastic wrap. We make the wrapping as air-tight as possible and label the meat with the cut, date, and weight.

Another way to protect your meat purchases is to buy a home vacuum sealer. Between the heavy plastic they use and the lack of air because of the vacuum, the meat will last for a year or two.

Amazon sells some of the highest-rated vacuum sealers. Read the reviews so you can make an informed better decision. They range in price from $40 to $200. Be sure to research the cost of replacement bags.

Discounted lunch meat that is close to going out of code.

Does Purchasing Expiring Meat Really Save Money?

You bet it does. Each grocer codes meat differently. Smart & Final (a culinary warehouse club in the West) has a limit of 25 percent off, usually marked three days before the sell-by date.

Kroger / Fry’s stores have a maximum discount of 40 percent off, usually applied two days prior to the item going “out of code.”

Safeway stores use one- or two-dollars-off stickers, and typically add more discounts as the code date approaches.

A few months ago, as Steve stood at a meat case evaluating cuts going out of code, a butcher asked if he needed help. Steve replied, “I’d love to buy this meat, but it’s not quite at my buy price yet. Is there anything you can do?”

The butcher smiled, pulled out a roll of discount stickers and knocked another two dollars off the package.

You bet we bought it. This brings up another principle: Always ask, especially if it’s the last date for the code. You may get a really steep discount.

Saving 25 percent due to a sale or advertised price reduction is great, but we really love stumbling on a deal that saves us 50 to 80 percent.

A Small Warehouse Club Called Smart & Final

There is a smaller warehouse-type food store near our home that sells butcher cuts of beef and pork. These cuts are 10 to 20 pounds, vacuum sealed in heavy plastic. There have been many times when we’ve purchased 17 pounds of beef brisket, bottom round, or some other cut that was close to going out of code. This store marks down their meat between 25 and 50 percent off. We bring it home and Steve has cut it into steaks and roasts. We label it and repackage it and put it in the freezer.

Yes, it takes some time to be a “butcher” of our own meat, but when you can get good cuts of meat at steeply discounted prices – it’s worth it. Just be sure to wear an apron when you’re cutting meat, it can get messy.

And if you do get some blood or other juices on the apron, be sure to read How to Get Blood out of Clothes and SheetsWe tested 9 different solutions to find what works best.

What do Grocery Stores do with Old Meat?

Some stores donate it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Others tell us they throw it away. Some manufacturers have a buy-back policy with the stores. This is especially true of those who sell meat in vacuum-sealed packages.

Some butchers are allowed to buy the meat at a steep discount for themselves. But it must be before the expiration date passes.

To avoid lawsuits, one local grocer has a policy of firing for any employee who sells out-of-code meat.

Discounted Lunchmeat sticker

Stocking up on and Storing Expired Meat

Of course, if you have a freezer, that is the best place to store your expiring meat. Stocking up when meat is going out of code, and freezing it, is the best way to keep that meat ready for when you will use it.

If you have your meat stored in the freezer, all you have to do is defrost it the night before or the day of, when you want to use it. You can slow-cook your meat in the crockpot, cook it in the oven, or BBQ it on your grill.

There are so many great recipes on Pinterest for cooking up a great meal for your household!
Thousands of pounds of good meat get thrown away each year. Is it due to the fear of litigation? Is it to protect public health? Or is it a ploy of meat producers to sell more meat to the stores? It could be a little of each.

But if you make friends with your local butcher, you might find some meat sharply discounted and able to make its way to your dinner table. And we think you could cheer about that.

What is Cross Contamination?

This is when germs or bacteria on kitchen tools like a knife or cutting board, get passed on to your meat or food. The germs we are talking about could be bacteria, but they could also be a virus or fungi.

And by fungus, we mean different kinds of molds. Mold usually appears on fruits or veggies that are damaged or old. This is why we carefully wash all of our produce in vinegar and water. Then we remove any damaged areas and trim stems whenever possible.

If you eat food that’s been cross-contaminated, and you feel sick, this could mean you have food poisoning. That’s why people are much more likely to get food poisoning from restaurants than at home. Restaurants have many surface areas being used.

They also have tons of food moving over these surface areas each day. And they have tons of different people working in those areas throughout different shifts on those days.

Your Home vs a Restaurant

Restaurants have the toughest time with cross-contamination, but this is NOT likely to happen in your home. Just be sure you are washing everything thoroughly as you switch from meats to vegetables or fruits, to starches. We have never had food poisoning in our home.

Read more about how to avoid cross-contamination at home from FoodSafety.gov.

Seniors & Food Contamination

We know of a sweet widowed elderly woman who insists on cooking for herself. And if she doesn’t cook for herself, then she buys a rotisserie chicken. The only problem with this is that Jackie is losing the use of some of her senses since she is 93 years old.

There are a couple of events at our house that she has missed because she wasn’t feeling good and had a tummy ache. Our hunch is that she actually had food poisoning because she wasn’t able to tell when her food has gone bad.

There is an easy solution. Someone needs to convince Jackie that rotisserie chickens are out and frozen dinners are in.

There are so many healthy choices for frozen meals and they are perfectly sized for a one-person meal. This way there are fewer or no leftovers. And no opportunity for food to deteriorate and become harmful. The only problem is that we aren’t Jackie’s caretaker and she can be quite set in her ways at times.

If you have a senior in your life please watch over them carefully. If you can, start talking to them about different meal planning and food storage. Help them understand that things need to change over time. And help them be aware of the different choices they can make to stay healthy.

FDA.gov has a great article on food safety for senior adults.

Wrap-up on Expired Meat

If you use your senses and common sense, expired meat can mean awesome deals and very little danger. Keep your eyes open and be ready to move in for savings whenever you walk past the meat department. You’ll be amazed at the deals you find.

Other Resources About Meat

Here’s an article by Consumer Reports that presents much of what we’ve learned about expired meat. And an article by Forbes that clarifies what consumers should know about “sell-by” and “use by” dates.

Check out our page for Saving on meat here.
Here is our blog about buying meat in bulk online.

Also, you may be interested in this article about knowing when meat is cheap, and you are getting a good deal.

Author: Steve & Annette Economides
Founders of MoneySmartFamily.com

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Is expired dangerous or is it a bargain?