How Long Can You Safely Store Meat? (2022)

How Long Can You Safely Store Meat? (1)Share on Pinterest

As the long days of summer arrive, you might imagine yourself carrying overflowing platters of hot dogs and juicy burgers at the next big family cookout.

And summer is a time for relaxation and time with loved ones. But with rising temperatures and outdoor gatherings lasting from morning to night, it’s definitely not a time to relax those important, science-based safety standards for food.

Each year, 48 million people fall sick from food poisoning, whether in a restaurant or in their own home, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s not entirely clear how many of these cases occur in the home specifically. Researchers say it may be anywhere as low as 12 percent to as high as 80 percent. But no matter the statistic, it’s up to you to safely store and handle your food at home.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for refrigeration and food safety, there are two kinds of bacteria that can grow on your food:

  • Pathogenic bacteria. These are especially dangerous as they cause foodborne illness. They grow rapidly in unrefrigerated foods and can’t usually be detected by how a food looks, tastes, or smells.
  • Spoilage bacteria. These develop and grow as food spoils. They do change the taste, look, and smell of your food. However, they’re far less likely to actually make you sick.

In either case, following the rules of safe food storage will help keep the food you eat both delicious and safe.

So, if you’ve been wondering how long you can keep that steak in the fridge or whether that can of tuna in your cabinet is still good enough for your casserole, we’ve got you covered. From freezer and fridge to canned foods in the cupboard, we’ve outlined the rules for safe food storage of beef, pork, poultry, and fish, all in time for your next set of leftovers.

Whatever the meat — beef, chicken, pork, or fish — there’s no question about it: You can safely store your food the longest in the freezer. That’s because you can safely freeze meats indefinitely.

According to USDA guidelines on freezing and food safety, freezing these foods to 0°F (-18°C) inactivates microbes like bacteria, yeasts, and mold as well as slows enzyme activity — all of the stuff that can cause your food to go bad.

The good news is no fancy vacuum sealer is required to safely freeze meat. However, sealing out moisture certainly does help keep these foods tasting fresh for longer when you eventually defrost and cook them.

So while you can safely store these foods in their original packaging, the USDA recommends that you add another layer of plastic wrap or foil before plunging your meats into the frozen abyss. That extra layer will help keep out moisture and keep those foods tasting fresh. Freezing meats when they’re as fresh as possible also helps preserve taste and nutrients.

You can even safely refreeze thawed meats that you don’t end up cooking. This assumes you thawed them properly to begin with (more on that later).

(Video) Ask the Test Kitchen: How Long Will Meat Last in the Fridge?

According to USDA guidelines, however, don’t refreeze foods left outside the refrigerator for longer than two hours or one hour in temperatures above 90°F (32°C).

Despite your freezer’s capacity to store meats and fish for a millennium, you probably shouldn’t keep these foods in your freezer for quite that long (unless you enjoy eating meat that tastes of shoe leather). Freezing your uncooked meats and fish is a safe practice, but at some point, it’s no longer a tasty one. It’s important to consider the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA recommended time limits for freezing cuts of meat and seafood.

Whether you follow those time limits or keep these foods frozen for much longer, the freezer will always be your safest bet. Raw meats and fish will always last longer in the freezer than they do in the fridge.

In addition to food storage guidelines, it’s just as important that you take care in defrosting these foods once you take them out of the freezer. USDA guidelines on safe defrosting say you should only thaw frozen meats in the fridge or in a leakproof plastic bag submerged in cold water. That’s because defrosting those foods at room temperature allows bacteria to grow too rapidly.

And as you defrost those frosty meats in the fridge, you also want to make sure they don’t drip on anything else as they thaw out. The same goes for marinating raw meat in the fridge. Place the meat in a covered dish to avoid spilling.

Beyond the freezer, canned meats and fish also offer you a very long storage life: between two and five years. This assumes you store these foods in proper conditions.

Your options for canned meats and fish are more limited than what you can store in your freezer or fridge, however. This is because canned meats and fish tend to come in a very specific format, like Spam, a tin of anchovies, or canned tuna fish.

Canning involves a different process to keep your food safe and unspoiled. The food is heated to kill bacteria then vacuum sealed to create a sterile environment and prohibit new bacteria growth.

There are very few examples where the fridge is your best storage option over your freezer or canned foods in your cupboard, but these examples do exist. The FDA recommends you skip freezing prepared meats that have been stuffed, for instance, and only refrigerate those before cooking.

Also, the USDA says mayonnaise, cream sauces, and lettuces don’t freeze well. Don’t freeze these foods or any meats that have been prepared with them.

Freezer storage guidelines

(Video) How to Store a Year's Worth of Meat

So just how long is “too long” before frozen meats won’t be so tasty?

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Beef

When it comes to most uncooked cuts of beef, you can freeze them for several months without sacrificing quality.

According to the FDA, you can keep cuts, like roasts, frozen for anywhere from 4 to 12 months and steaks for 6 to 12 months. Ground beef should be frozen for no more than three to four months.

Once cooked, you can also safely freeze those beefy leftovers. But the FDA recommends you keep these frozen for only about two to three months. Again, this is purely a matter of quality. Meat can be kept longer in the freezer than these guidelines espouse. But at that point, you may begin to sacrifice quality.

Poultry

If you want to freeze a whole chicken or turkey, the good news is that frozen poultry can keep for up to one year without sacrificing much quality. The FDA says chicken parts like thighs, breasts, or wings keep well for up to nine months, but giblets should be kept no longer than three to four months. Ground chicken should probably be kept for no longer than three to four months as well.

Pork

For uncooked pork, freezer guidelines are similar to beef. Roasts can be kept frozen for between 4 and 12 months. Chops are OK in the freezer for four to six months.

For cooked cuts of pork, the FDA recommends you keep these frozen for only two to three months to maximize quality.

When it comes to smoked and processed pork like ham, hot dogs, bacon, and lunch meats, the FDA recommends you only freeze these foods for one to two months.

Seafood

Recommendations for freezing seafood are a bit more complicated. Lean fish like catfish or cod can be kept frozen for six to eight months. Fatty fish like salmon should be kept frozen for only two to three months.

Shellfish like shrimp and other seafood like scallops can be kept frozen for three to six months. Cooked fish should be kept frozen for no longer than four to six months. And smoked fish should only be kept frozen for two months before sacrificing taste.

Fridge storage guidelines

When we shift to thinking about storing food in the fridge, unlike the freezer, safety as well as taste is a concern. A fridge kept at 40°F (4°C) does slow the growth of dangerous bacteria. But since it’s not as cold as a freezer, you want to pay close attention to storage time limits set by the FDA and toss any foods that have been kept too long.

(Video) Safe Food FAQs - What Is The Best Way To Store Meat?

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Beef

Most uncooked meat, regardless of cut, can be stored in the fridge for three to five days. But there are definitely exceptions. Ground meat and offal like liver and kidneys should only be kept in the fridge for one to two days. Leftovers containing cooked meat should be kept for no longer than three to four days before tossing.

Poultry

Raw poultry, whether whole, parts like breasts or thighs, or ground giblets or meat, can only be kept for one to two days in the fridge. But, once cooked, you get a bit of an extension. The FDA says you can keep cooked poultry in the fridge for three to four days.

Pork

Fresh, uncooked pork can be refrigerated about as long as other meats: three to five days. This is regardless of whether it’s a roast or pork chops. Raw ground pork should also only be kept in the fridge for one to two days. Once cooked, pork dishes should be kept for two to three days in the fridge before tossing.

The guidelines are different for processed pork products. Unopened packages of hot dogs and lunch meat can be kept for two weeks. Once those packages are opened, only keep hot dogs for a week and luncheon meat for three to five days.

Only keep bacon for seven days. The same goes for a whole, cooked ham. But for half a ham, you can refrigerate it for three to five days. Ham slices can be kept in the fridge for three to four days.

Seafood

Lean or fatty fish and shellfish can only be refrigerated for one to two days before needing to toss. You can keep cooked fish leftovers for three to four days. Smoked fish, on the other hand, can be kept longer. You can safely refrigerate it for 14 days. Once opened, canned fish like tuna can be safely refrigerated for three to four days.

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In the world of safe food storage, canned food is a real boon. It provides many affordable and long-lasting options. According to USDA guidelines, you can keep canned food for two to five years, whether it’s fish, poultry, pork, or beef.

Commercially canned food is placed in a sterile, vacuum-sealed container and heat processed at 250°F (121°C). This process kills microorganisms, halts enzymes from forming, and prevents new bacteria from entering the stored food.

Things can, however, go wrong. Sometimes canned food can be damaged during the manufacturing process or become badly rusted. If your canned food is heavily rusted or damaged, you’ll definitely want to discard it. You’ll also want to get rid of any canned food that’s bulging or smells bad. It might be a sign of C. botulinum, a bacterium that can cause a deadly form of food poisoning. Botulism is incredibly rare, especially in commercially canned foods. But there’s a risk of it developing in foods canned improperly at home.

(Video) Survival Instructor Teaches How to Preserve Meat in Wilderness: Survival Food Rations

Once in your home, you’ll definitely want to make sure to store canned food properly. That means keeping canned food somewhere that’s cool, dry, and dark, ideally below 85°F (29°C) and no higher than 100°F (38°C). Never keep canned food somewhere that’s damp or hot, like under the sink or next to the stove.

Once you open canned food, bacteria can begin to grow, so you’ll want to quickly refrigerate and store any unused portion. According to the USDA, you can safely put your leftover canned food right into the fridge. In order to preserve taste and flavor, it’s recommended that you refrigerate any unused portion in a separate, clean storage container.

You can also freeze unused canned seafood in a proper storage container for up to two months.

So, what if after reading all of this, you immediately forget all of these best practices? If you find yourself staring blankly at your open fridge, wondering what to do, keep the following contact information tacked to your fridge:

Tip

  1. For food safety information, call the USDA’s meat and poultry hotline at 888-MPHOTLINE (888-674-6854). They’re available year-round, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST. You can also email them at MPHotline.fsis@usda.gov and chat with them online.
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Jenny Splitter is a writer and storyteller based in Washington, D.C. She contributes science, food, and health stories to outlets like The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Mental Floss, and Slate, as well as the science communication project SciMoms. She also appears in the “Science Moms” documentary and is the story director for the D.C.-based immersive experience company TBD Immersive. She performs her own true, occasionally embarrassing stories about herself on stage for audiences at the 9:30 Club, the National Gallery of Art, and the Birchmere. In her spare time, she carves ice sculptures and grows heirloom wheat. Just kidding, she has two kids.

FAQs

How long can you keep raw meat in the fridge? ›

For raw ground meats, poultry, seafood and variety meats (liver, tongue, chitterlings, etc.), refrigerate them only 1 to 2 days before either cooking or freezing. Beef, veal, lamb and pork roasts, steaks and chops may be kept 3 to 5 days.

Can meat be stored for years? ›

Best practices for storing meat. Whatever the meat — beef, chicken, pork, or fish — there's no question about it: You can safely store your food the longest in the freezer. That's because you can safely freeze meats indefinitely.

Whats the longest meat can be stored? ›

You can safely store larger cuts of meat in the fridge for 3 to 5 days after getting them home and before cooking or freezing. You can safely store steaks, roasts, chops, and other larger cuts of meat in the freezer for 4 to 12 months.

How do you store raw meat for a long time? ›

The best way to preserve meat for a long time is to put it in a freezer. Before storing it in the freezer, remove the meat from the original package, clean it using a paper towel to remove excess liquid from the chicken surface. Then place it in a dry airtight container/glass container.

How can you tell if meat is bad? ›

Spoiled meat will have a distinct, pungent smell that will make your face scrunch up. Texture – In addition to an unpleasant scent, spoiled meats can be sticky or slimy to the touch. Color – Rotten meats will also undergo a slight change in color. Poultry should be anywhere from a bluish-white to yellow in color.

Is 2 year old frozen chicken still good? ›

If kept frozen continuously, chicken will be safe indefinitely, so after freezing, it's not important if any package dates expire. For best quality, taste and texture, keep whole raw chicken in the freezer up to one year; parts, 9 months; and giblets or ground chicken, 3 to 4 months.

Is 2 year old frozen hamburger still good? ›

Ground beef is safe indefinitely if kept frozen, but it is best if used within 4 months. Refrigerate or freeze ground beef as soon as possible after purchase. This preserves freshness and slows the growth of bacteria.

Can you eat 2 year old frozen pork? ›

But we're here to finally put the question to rest, as the USDA states that as long as all foods are stored at 0 °F or lower in your freezer, they are safe to eat indefinitely.

How long can meat be frozen vacuum packed? ›

Meats, like beef, poultry and fish, generally only stay fresh for about six months when stored in the freezer by conventional methods. Using your vacuum sealer can extend that shelf life to about two to three years.

How do you store meat for years? ›

How to Cure Meat for Long Term Storage
  1. Use Fresh (unfrozen Meat.
  2. Saturate with Sea Salt (No Caking Agents)
  3. Refrigerate (below 5°C or 41°F)
  4. Wash Meat with Water.
  5. Protect and Hang in Sun or dry in Fridge.
  6. After 1 to 2 weeks Cured Meat is Preserved.
  7. Storage in Cool Area.
  8. Soak in water for 12-24 hours, before Use.

How long does meat wrapped in butcher paper last in the fridge? ›

"We recommend using fresh, paper-wrapped meats within three to four days of purchase. If meats are vacuum sealed, you want to use or freeze them within two weeks of the 'packed on' date."

Can you eat a ham that has been frozen for 2 years? ›

Technically, freezing ham will keep it safe indefinitely, but it might not taste good after years of sitting in the freezer.

How can you tell if beef is spoiled? ›

The texture and smell seem "off"

If the beef is sticky, slimy, tacky, or smells bad, toss it. "If you leave ground beef in the refrigerator, eventually it will start to spoil after so many days," Magoulas said. "Typically with meats, they'll be sticky, slimy, and have off or foul odors."

Can you eat steak after 7 days in fridge? ›

How long is raw steak good in the fridge? Store raw steak in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. However, pay attention to sell-by dates and the expiration date. Steak may remain fresh for a few days past their sell-by dates, but you should freeze steak before its expiration date if you won't use it by that date.

What happens if you eat old meat? ›

Side effects of eating bad beef

Spoiled ground beef is dangerous to eat because it may contain pathogenic bacteria, which are responsible for foodborne illnesses. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea — which may be bloody ( 9 , 10 , 11 ).

Can spoiled meat be cooked? ›

Oven Via clarifies that although cooking spoiled meat can kill germs, mold, and other kinds of bacteria, it's still not safe to eat as it will not get rid of harmful toxins.

Can you get sick from cooking spoiled meat? ›

Like any other old, spoiled food, bad meat can make you sick. If the meat has been contaminated with something pathogenic, like bacteria or toxins, it can make you sick.

Can you eat meat with freezer burn? ›

Meat and other foods with freezer burn are still safe to eat. Freezer burn draws out moisture and flavor. This affects the quality. but not the safety of food.

What happens to meat frozen too long? ›

The FDA note that freezing meat at 0°F (-18°C) will technically preserve it indefinitely. However, the quality of the meat may drop after some time, and very long freeze times may cause noticeable changes in the quality and taste of the meat.

What do you do with old meat in the freezer? ›

Easiest is to slice off the freezer burned portion and feed it to the dog or cat. They are typically less picky than you are. Another option is to use the freezer burned portions in stock or broth.

Can you eat steak after 7 days in fridge? ›

How long is raw steak good in the fridge? Store raw steak in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. However, pay attention to sell-by dates and the expiration date. Steak may remain fresh for a few days past their sell-by dates, but you should freeze steak before its expiration date if you won't use it by that date.

How long can thawed meat stay in the fridge? ›

While foods are in the process of thawing in the refrigerator (40 °F or less), they remain safe. After thawing, use ground meats, poultry, and fish within one or two additional days, and use beef, pork, lamb or veal (roasts, steaks, or chops) within three to five days.

Is raw chicken OK in the fridge for 7 days? ›

According to the USDA and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, raw chicken (regardless of if it's whole; in pieces such as breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and wings; or ground) should be stored for no longer than one to two days in the refrigerator.

How can you tell if beef is spoiled? ›

The texture and smell seem "off"

If the beef is sticky, slimy, tacky, or smells bad, toss it. "If you leave ground beef in the refrigerator, eventually it will start to spoil after so many days," Magoulas said. "Typically with meats, they'll be sticky, slimy, and have off or foul odors."

Can you eat 2 year old frozen meat? ›

But we're here to finally put the question to rest, as the USDA states that as long as all foods are stored at 0 °F or lower in your freezer, they are safe to eat indefinitely.

Is GREY steak safe to eat? ›

Insider further elaborates that gray steak is actually a fairly common occurrence, and it can be cooked and consumed safely, provided that it isn't slimy or giving off an unpleasant odor.

Can you eat ground beef that has been in the fridge for a week? ›

It is safe to store ground beef in the refrigerator for 1–2 days, and eat leftovers within 4 days. A person can store ground beef in the freezer for up to 4 months. When cooking ground beef, the minimum internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer is 160°F (71°C).

Can I eat chicken that's been in the fridge for a week? ›

Raw chicken lasts in the fridge for 1–2 days, while cooked chicken lasts 3–4 days. To detect if chicken has gone bad, check the “best if used by” date and look for signs of spoilage like changes in smell, texture, and color. Avoid eating spoiled chicken, as it can cause food poisoning — even if you cook it thoroughly.

Can you leave frozen meat out to thaw overnight? ›

The best way to thaw meat safely is to plan ahead. Defrost it overnight on a plate in the refrigerator. By the next day, you're ready to cook. Never keep meat at room temperature for more than two hours.

Can I refreeze thawed meat? ›

The U. S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) advises: Once food is thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze it without cooking, although there may be a loss of quality due to the moisture lost through thawing.

How long does beef last in the fridge? ›

3 to 5 days

Is it OK to cook chicken that smells a little? ›

A telltale sign of bad chicken is a foul smell. Raw, fresh chicken will have a very mild smell or none at all. If your chicken has a very apparent smell, such as a sour or sulfur-like smell similar to rotten eggs, throw it out. However, you should never rely on smell alone to determine if chicken is safe to eat.

Can I cook defrosted chicken after 3 days? ›

Safely keeping thawed chicken in the fridge

Poultry that's been defrosted in the fridge can be safely kept for an additional one to two days in the refrigerator before cooking, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You also can safely refreeze it within that same timeframe.

What happens if you cook and eat spoiled meat? ›

According to the National Health Service, food poisoning symptoms include vomiting, (bloody) diarrhea, stomach cramps, and a loss of appetite. These effects of eating spoiled meat can be noticeable within the first two days and can last up to four days to potentially a week.

What happens if you eat old meat? ›

Side effects of eating bad beef

Spoiled ground beef is dangerous to eat because it may contain pathogenic bacteria, which are responsible for foodborne illnesses. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea — which may be bloody ( 9 , 10 , 11 ).

Can you cook slightly spoiled meat? ›

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.

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