Ask The Chef

Safely Freezing Meat

Food can be kept safely in the freezer for a long time. The quality may suffer over an extended freeze, but its safety will not be compromised.  If the food has been handled properly, and is placed in the freezer even a couple of days after the sell-by date, you can safely consume it at any time. Of course, this requires handling and preparing it properly after removing from the freezer.

The sell-by dates on most foods are not particularly meaningful. There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for dating foods sold in the US. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has little or no dating. Here's what the various dates you see on food packages mean:
  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. (You should buy the product before the expiration date.)
  • A "Best-if-Used-By (or Before)" date 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 the use of the product while at peak quality. The “Use-By” date is determined by the manufacturer.
Generally, in terms of safety, how you handle the food is the important part. Government and food safety advocates want meat defrosted in the refrigerator to maintain a temperature below 40°F (5°C).   Between 40° and 140° (60°C), bacteria flourish. Thawing food on the counter allows the surface temperature to rise above 40° while the center of the meat is still frozen. This 40°F barrier is the reason food safety people will allow you to defrost meats in a sink of cold water (a much faster method than refrigerator defrosting), but insist that the water is changed every half hour to keep it cold.
If you follow these defrosting procedures, the government says you can keep thawed ground meat and poultry for a day or two before you cook it and un-ground red meat for three to five days. Additionally, government watchdogs will allow you to refreeze meats, even if they have defrosted fully, as long as they were defrosted in the refrigerator below 40°F. Of course, the quality of meat that has been frozen multiple times will suffer as water is forced back and forth through the cell walls as it freezes and defrosts. If you defrost meat in a microwave oven, cook it right away, because some parts will have gotten too warm.
The US Department of Agriculture recommends consulting the following chart to know how long you can safely keep fresh meat and poultry products in the refrigerator after bringing them home from the store:

Storage Times After Purchase:
1 or 2 days
Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb
3 to 5 days
Ground Meat and Ground Poultry
1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings)
1 or 2 days
Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating
5 to 7 days
Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked
1 or 2 days
3 to 5 weeks