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

Overview

Many types of bacteria can grow on animal products, so it’s important to safely handle and store all types of meat. However, the different rules for handling different types of meat can be confusing. It may be perfectly safe to eat some meat a week after it was prepared or to freeze it for later. Other types should be thrown away after only a few days.

Safety issues are associated with everything you may eat. A healthy kitchen depends on your knowledge of safe cooking and storage practices.

Selecting meat

Never buy meat that’s past the expiration or sell-by date. Also, buy meats at the store after you’ve found all your other items to decrease the time the meat is out of refrigeration.

Follow these specific guidelines when selecting certain meats:

  • Avoid any beef or pork that’s dark brown or discolored, has a strong odor, or feels tough or slimy.
  • Avoid any poultry that looks faded, has a strong odor, or feels tough or slimy.
  • Avoid any fish that’s faded or discolored, has squishy or slimy flesh, and has a strong fishy or ammonia-like odor.
  • Avoid any meat that’s in damaged, leaking, or torn packages, as it’s likely been exposed to the air and harmful bacteria.

Handling meat

Wash your hands frequently when preparing any type of meat, fish, or poultry. Bacteria can quickly spread between your hands and meat. Always wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling meat, whether it’s raw or cooked.

Because bacteria can spread easily, prepare the meat on a surface that’s separate from all other cooking materials. Keep vegetables and other ingredients away from meat, especially if you aren’t cooking them together in the same dish.

Try to use separate cutting boards, clean all cooking utensils after they touch raw meat, and use different utensils to serve food after you’ve prepared it.

Storing meat

Uncured, raw meat generally lasts safely for around three days in the refrigerator. If you plan to keep uncooked meat longer, freezing it is your best bet. Seal the meat 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. Keep your freezer as close to 0°F (-17.8°C) as possible. This helps retain nutrients and keep food fresh. Keep your refrigerator at around 34°F (1.1°C), just above freezing, to effectively prolong the shelf life of foods.

Below are general guidelines for how long basic meats can be kept safely if they’re stored properly.

Type of meatSafe storage times (in the refrigerator)Safe storage times (in the freezer)
uncooked poultry1–2 days9 months (pieces) to 1 year (whole)
uncooked ground meat1–2 days3–4 months
uncooked steaks or chops3–4 days4–12 months, depending on the item
uncooked fish1–2 days6 months
cooked poultry, meat, or fish3–4 days2–6 months
hot dogs and lunch meatup to 1 week (open package) or 2 weeks (closed package)1–2 months

Cooking temperature and food safety

Cooking temperature affects both the taste and safety of food.

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

  • rare: 120–125°F (48.9–51.7°C)
  • medium: 140–145°F (60–62.8°C)
  • well-done: 165°F (73.9°C) or higher

From a safety perspective, hotter temperatures at the center of the meat are safer. However, safe cooking temperatures vary for different types of meat.

Meat safety and pregnancy
Meats that are cooked rare or medium may not be cooked thoroughly enough to kill all bacteria. For this reason, pregnant women should only eat well-done meats.

Safe cooking temperatures for different meats are:

Poultry: 165°F (73.9°C) for whole or ground poultry. Poultry should never be eaten rare. Undercooked poultry can spread salmonella and other diseases. You should always cook it thoroughly.

Ground meats: 160°F (71.1°C) for ground meats such as beef, pork, and lamb. While whole cuts of meat typically have most bacteria on their surfaces, ground meats may have bacteria mixed throughout. Therefore, they must be cooked to a higher temperature than whole cuts of meat.

Whole meat: 145°F (62.8°C), and the meat should be allowed to rest for at least three minutes before eating. The resting time gives the heat more time to kill any bacteria.

  • Pork should always be cooked to at least the high end of medium because it can carry potentially dangerous worms and parasites.
  • Beef has a wider safety range, but lovers of rare meat are safer sticking to steaks, roasts, and chops.

Fin fish: 145°F (62.8°C) or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily.

Seafood and raw fish safety

Fish has a wide spectrum of safe cooking methods, depending on the type and quality of fish you’re cooking. The cooking method you use is also extremely important.

Check the cooking instructions for different types of fish. Fish should generally be cooked all the way through, but medium-rare may be acceptable for certain types. Raw fish, such as sushi, should be eaten with caution. It must be sushi-grade fish that’s prepared carefully to reduce the risk of contamination.

thumbs up Fish safety
  1. Most fish must be cooked to at least 145°F (62.8°C) to be safe to eat.
  2. Raw fish generally needs to be frozen at -4°F (-20°C) for at least a week before being prepared for sushi, sashimi, and other raw fish dishes.
  3. Some fish, including salmon and tuna, are considered sushi-grade after they’ve been frozen and prepared properly.
  4. Don’t cross-contaminate a cutting board used for sushi-grade or cooked fish with a cutting board used for non-sushi-grade or uncooked fish. If you mix the two, you can spread harmful bacteria to the safe fish.
  5. Refrigerate fresh fish at 40°F (4.4°C) or below if you’re planning to eat it soon.
  6. Always wash your hands between preparing cooked fish and uncooked fish.

When cooking different types of seafood, look for the following to make sure that it’s cooked:

In fish: The flesh should not be see-through (light shouldn’t pass through it at all), and it should be very easy to cut with a fork, with the flesh falling apart.

In clams, oysters, and mussels: The shells should be open and any that don’t open should be thrown away.

In scallops: The flesh should be rigid and not at all see-through.

In shrimp and lobster: The meat should be shiny and not at all see-through.

Don’t leave any cooked seafood out for longer than two hours. Keep it refrigerated or insulated with ice if you’re planning to eat it later.

General food safety tips

Replace sponges and kitchen towels regularly. Washing your dishes and cutting boards with dirty sponges and towels can spread more bacteria. Bacteria and other disease-causing pathogens also grow on sponges and towels over time, so make sure to clean your sponge thoroughly every other day and replace it about once per week.

What it boils down to

Don’t ever eat or even sample anything raw (besides some fish) or questionable. Bacteria can grow in enormous numbers on bad meat, so even a small amount of uncooked or spoiled meat can spread bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. When it comes to meat, poultry, or fish, think, “When in doubt, don’t.” That is, if you’re unsure whether it’s safe to eat or not, don’t eat it.

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