Meat Safety: Storing and Handling Meat, Poultry & Fish

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 8, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 8, 2014

Meat Safety: Storing and Handling Meat, Poultry, and Fish

Many different types of bacteria can grow on animal products. It’s important to safely handle and store all types of meat. However, many people find it confusing that different types of meat have different handling rules. It may be perfectly safe to eat one type of meat a week after it was prepared or freeze it to eat later. However, other types should be thrown away after only a few days or kept unfrozen.

There are safety issues associated with whatever you may eat. A healthy kitchen depends on your knowledge of how to safely cook and store your food.

Handling Meat

Make sure to wash your hands frequently when preparing any type of meat, fish, or poultry.

Prepare the meat on a separate surface from other cooking materials. Germs spread easily. It’s particularly important to keep vegetables and other ingredients away from meat, especially if you are not cooking them together in the same dish.

Use separate cutting boards. You should also clean all cooking utensils after they come into contact with raw meat. Different utensils should be used to serve food than prepare it.

Meat Storage

As a general rule, uncured raw meat lasts safely for around three days in the refrigerator. If you are planning to keep uncooked meat longer, then freezing is your best bet. Meat should be sealed in an airtight package before freezing. Then it can usually be frozen for at least several months.

Safe freezing and refrigeration time also depends on the storage temperature. Freezers should be kept as close to 0 degrees Fahrenheit as possible. This helps keep food fresh and retain nutrients.  Refrigerators should be kept at around 34 F to effectively prolong the shelf life of foods. This temperature is just above freezing.

Below is a general guide to how long basic meats can be kept safely if they are stored properly.

In the Refrigerator

  • uncooked poultry: one to two days
  • uncooked ground meat: one to two days
  • uncooked steaks or chops: three to four days
  • uncooked fish: one to two days
  • cooked poultry, meat, or fish: three to four days
  • hot dogs and lunch meat: up to one week (open package) or two weeks (closed package)

In the Freezer

  • uncooked poultry: nine months (pieces) to one year (whole)
  • uncooked ground beef: three to four months
  • uncooked steaks or chops: four to 12 months, depending on the item
  • uncooked fish: six months
  • cooked meat, poultry, or fish: two to six months
  • hot dogs and lunch meat: one to two months

Cooking Temperature and Food Safety

Cooking temperature affects both the taste and safety of food.

From a safety perspective, hotter temperatures at the center of the meat are safer. However, safe cooking temperatures vary for different types of meat. According to FoodSafety.gov, safe cooking temperatures for meats are:

  • 160 F for ground meats (beef, pork, and lamb)
  • 145 F for fresh, whole meats, and the meat should be allowed to rest for at least three minutes before eating
  • 165 F for poultry, whole or ground
  • 145 F for fin fish, or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily

The resting time for cooking whole meats is important. Resting the food gives the heat more time to kill any bacteria.

Rare to Well-Done

The spectrum of rare to well-done depends on the temperature at the center of the meat. This temperature is best checked using a meat thermometer. These can be found at kitchen supply stores and in most grocery stores. Typical cooking temperatures are:

  • 120-125 F for rare meat
  • 140-145 F for medium
  • 165 F or higher for well-done

Rare and medium meats may not be cooked thoroughly enough to kill all bacteria. However, risk varies for different types of meats.

  • Poultry should never be eaten rare. It should always be cooked thoroughly. Undercooked poultry can spread salmonella and other diseases.
  • Pork should always be cooked to at least the high end of medium. Pork can carry several potentially dangerous types of worms and parasites.
  • Beef has a wider safety range. However, rare meat lovers are safer sticking to steaks, roasts, and chops. Ground meat needs to be cooked to a higher temperature. This is because whole cuts of meat typically have the most bacteria on their surfaces. Bacteria found in ground meats may be mixed throughout.

Cooking Fish

Fish has a wide spectrum of safe cooking methods. They change depending on the type and quality of fish you are cooking. The method used to cook the fish is also extremely important.

Check cooking instructions for different types of fish. In general, fish should be cooked all the way through. However, medium-rare may be acceptable for certain types of fish. Raw fish, like sushi, should only be eaten with caution. It must be prepared carefully to reduce the risk of contamination.

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