What to look for when buying meat

Knowing what to look for when buying fresh meat is an important step in food safety.

Knowing what to look for when selecting meat is important from a food safety standard as well as a health standard. First let’s talk quality. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the federal organization that regulates the inspection and standards of the meat, poultry, and egg industry. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also a regulatory agency that inspects and monitors all other food. “Inspection for wholesomeness is mandatory and is paid for with public funds. Grading for quality is voluntary, and the service is requested and paid for by meat and poultry producers/processors.” USDA

The meat you purchase at the store may or may not have a “USDA grade” stamp on it. The “grading” referred to here is different for the various types of meat. For instance, beef that is sold to the consumer is graded as Prime, Choice, or Select and is based on both the quality of the meat in terms of tenderness, juiciness and flavor; and yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. Poultry on the other hand is graded A, B and C, with A being the grade you would find in retail. Pork is not graded, and veal and lamb have similar grading as beef, and can be viewed at the USDA website.

Aside from the official “grading” of meat, how do you know if the meat you are purchasing is a good quality or safe to eat? Using your three senses of look, smell, and feel are good subjective ways to guide yourself. There is a typical color we look for in beef, such as a bright red color. After the meat is slaughtered, it reacts with oxygen in the air and turns the red color. As it ages, it does tend to turn a gray color, so this may or may not indicate that it is old, just that it is lacking oxygen. Chicken on the other hand can look anywhere from a bluish-white to yellow. The color ranges are dependent on breed, exercise, age, and/or diet. Spoiled meat may have a darkening or loss of the color as explained above. USDA has developed fact sheets to help you understand a variety of food safety practices, including “Understanding the Color of Meat.”

You are not always able to smell if meat is spoiled, but you may sense an off odor. It is best to not take chances, as if it smells off, it probably is. Basically, bacteria stink, so when it has multiplied enough – it smells bad. You do have the right to smell fresh meat that is packaged, just be considerate and talk with store personnel if you want to open a sealed package. Bacteria also produce slime, so if the meat feels at all slimy, it should definitely be thrown out.

There are also objective measures one can use to ensure good, safe purchase of meat. Michigan State University Extension recommends looking at the “Use by” date, and use the meat by this date. If the date is a “sell by” date, then you can safely store it at home for anywhere from 1-5 days after purchase – you can search The Food Keeper to view recommended storage times for specific foods, after food is purchased. If food cannot be eaten in this time frame, then it should be properly packaged and frozen to use for later use. 

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