Has Ground Beef Gone Bad If It Turned Gray?

Hint: It’s not bad yet. (Probably.)

You're all set to make the meatloaf, hamburgers, or meatballs you've been craving all day. You reach for the plastic-wrapped container of ground beef in the refrigerator that's been there for a few days, and—oh, no!—the meat has turned an unappealing shade of gray.

Don't chuck that chuck—yet. Chances are, it is perfectly edible. According to the USDA, extremely fresh beef is actually purplish in color. That's right—bright red, the color we associate with beef, isn't an indicator of freshness. When the surface of the meat comes into contact with oxygen, it turns red. When the meat has no oxygen exposure, it changes to a gray-brown hue. But that does not mean it is spoiled.

If your butcher sells ground beef to order, you may notice that when they scoop out a portion of meat, the ground beef toward the bottom of the container (not exposed to oxygen) looks gray, which, understandably, may cause you to worry. This unsightly appearance is why most grocery stores package cut meat in oxygen-permeable plastic wrap so that oxygen can come in contact with the meat and preserve the red color.

ground beef turned gray
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How To Tell If Ground Beef Is Bad

Check The Color

The critical thing to note is where the meat is gray. If it is a bit gray on the inside, that's probably fine. If the ground beef is gray on the inside and outside, it most likely has spoiled. A simple sniff test will confirm that for you. Also, if the ground beef has any areas that are tinted white or blue, this can indicate mold and should be thrown out.

Check The Smell

Spoiled ground beef will have an unpleasant smell after you open the packaging. Odor is always an indicator that something is off because fresh ground beef should not have any scent. If you are using frozen ground beef, there might be an initial smell after removing it from its packaging, but if the aroma is foul-smelling, throw it out to be sure.

Check The Texture

Fresh ground beef should also be firm but pliable when squeezed. If it does not break apart when you press the meat or appears to have changed textures (such as slimy or sticky), then bacteria might be present. You risk Salmonella and E. coli growing on improperly stored or expired ground beef.

How To Handle Fresh Ground Beef

Purchase Fresh Beef

When first purchasing ground beef, the package should be cold and not contain holes where air or bacteria can contaminate the food. Fresh ground beef will be red when first purchased.

Minimize any change of raw ground beef juices spilling on other food by placing it in a separate bag when purchasing. Keep ground beef cool and refrigerate as soon as possible. If you plan to keep ground beef in the refrigerator, use the meat within one or two days of purchase.

Avoid Cross-Contamination

According to the USDA, to avoid cross-contamination, "wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling ground beef." Also, cross-contamination can infect different foods by spreading on surfaces, so "don't reuse any packaging materials. Use soap and hot water to wash utensils and surfaces which have come into contact with the raw meat." Cross-contamination can occur when using the same platter for cooked meat as uncooked meat. For example, don't place cooked burgers on the same plate you used to store the raw patties before grilling.

Use Ground Beef Soon After Purchasing

For best results, use ground beef within one to two days of purchase, or freeze it in its original packaging for up to four months. When freezing, be mindful of cross-contamination and secure ground beef in an area that will not come into contact with other foods. Frozen ground beef may also turn gray, but it is safe to eat if stored properly. Correct storage includes wrapping the ground beef in air-tight plastic wrap, aluminum foil, freezer paper, or a bag. Labeling your frozen foods with dates helps to know when food is best-by.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does spoiled ground beef smell like?

    Consider ground beef with any foul or unusual smell as rotten, as it can present as rancid, pungent, or even sweet. Fresh ground beef should smell like iron.

  • What happens if you cook bad ground beef?

    Ground beef, no longer fresh, can contain bacteria that cause food poisoning, such as salmonella, staphylococcus, clostridium, or E. coli—smelly, slimy, or foul-smelling ground beef should be discarded.

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