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Chilling Meat: It's All about Safety

From the farm to the store, meat and poultry products must be chilled—and kept chilled, packaged, and handled properly so they will be safe for consumers to buy and eat. Several government agencies have the responsibility to assure the food's safety. In the home, food caretakers must do their part to store, handle, and cook meat and poultry right so it's safe to eat. 

Here are some of the scientific principles behind the safe storage of meat and poultry. 

Why is chilling meat and poultry important?

Raw meat and poultry products should be maintained at 40 degrees F or below to greatly reduce the growth rate of any pathogenic bacteria that may be present on their surfaces. Chilling is required of all raw products unless they move directly from the slaughter line to heat processing or cooking (made into hot dogs or luncheon meats, for example), which destroys pathogens. 

How are meat and poultry chilled and maintained at the plant?

Meat and poultry products are chilled immediately after slaughter to acceptable internal temperatures, which ensures the prompt removal of the animal heat and preserves the wholesomeness of the products. Generally, red meat carcasses (which are above 90 degrees F at the time of slaughter) are chilled in a blast cooler with rapidly moving, chilled air, and, in some instances, a cold-water shower. 

Poultry is required to be chilled to 40 degrees F or less within specified time frames, depending on the size of the carcass. Whole birds and parts of major size are chilled in ice or ice and water media. Poultry parts are chilled in ice, air, or water spray with continuous drainage. Giblets must be chilled to 40 degrees or below within two hours of slaughtering the birds. 

How does packaging prolong storage times?

Packaging is a physical barrier to cross-contamination. Microorganisms exist everywhere in nature. They are in the soil, air, and water. The simple act of covering food keeps microorganisms from contacting the food. Covered perishable foods can be stored longer and at better quality than uncovered foods. Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) and vacuum packaging help prolong storage. 

What effect do vacuum packaging and modified atmosphere packaging have on meat storage?

Oxygen in the air hastens both the chemical breakdown and microbial spoilage of many foods. To help preserve foods longer, scientists have developed ways to help overcome the effects of oxygen. Vacuum packaging, for example, removes air from packages and produces a vacuum inside. MAP helps to preserve foods by replacing some or all of the oxygen in the air inside the package with other gases such as carbon dioxide or nitrogen. (Some examples: lunch meat in a blister package; raw beef brisket or filets in vacuum packaging; fresh turkeys.) 

At what temperature can raw poultry be maintained?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's rules for labeling raw poultry products say that the term "fresh" may ONLY be placed on raw poultry that has never been below 26 degrees F. Poultry held at 0 degrees or below must be labeled "frozen" or "previously frozen." No specific labeling is required on poultry between 0 and 26 degrees F. 

This poultry label rule addresses a truth-in-labeling issue, not food safety, because most pathogenic bacteria do not grow or grow very slowly at normal refrigerator temperatures. The USDA concluded that the term "fresh" should not be used on the labeling of raw poultry products that have been chilled to the point they are hard to the touch. 

How are meat products kept safe during transportation?

To prevent rapid growth of pathogenic bacteria, perishable meat and poultry products should be kept cold (40 degrees or below) or frozen (0 degrees or below) during transport from the plant to a refrigerated warehouse or retail store. Microorganisms capable of causing foodborne illness either don't grow or grow very slowly at refrigerated temperatures of 40 degrees F. Freezing keeps food safe by slowing the movement of molecules, causing any microbes present to enter a dormant stage. There's also no risk of dripping juices to contaminate nearby products and storage areas. 

How is the temperature inside trucks monitored?

Trucks should have temperature devices that constantly record temperatures on a running graph for the duration of a trip. A visual temperature device is located outside the trucks so the drivers can monitor how cold it is inside. Trucks can be specially sealed to prevent being opened during transit. 

How are meat products kept safe during loading and unloading?

One of the extremely important places in handling perishable meat and poultry products safely is the receiving dock. Employees should verify the products are at a safe temperature upon arrival. According to the Food and Drug Administration Food Code (which covers retail establishments) the temperature must be at 5 degrees C (41 degrees F) when received. Employees should also check the conditions of the packaging materials and the sight and smell of the products. 

In the store, how should meat products be safely handled?

To protect perishable food from contamination after receipt at the store, food employees must wash their hands before handling it. Raw foods must be kept separate from cooked ready-to-eat foods during storage, preparation, holding, and display. Some local jurisdictions may require food handlers to wear gloves. 

Frozen foods must be maintained frozen. When "thawed for your convenience," frozen food must be kept under refrigeration that maintains the food at 5 degrees C (41 degrees F) or below, or completely submerged under running water following strict guidelines outlined in the Food Code. 

How is meat kept safe in display cases?

Meat and poultry products on display must be protected from contamination by the use of packaging; counter, service line, or salad bar food guards, display cases; or other effective means, according to the Food Code. Unpackaged, raw animal food, such as beef, lamb, pork, poultry, and fish, may not be offered for consumer self-service. 

Ready-to-eat meat and poultry at consumer self-service operations must be provided with suitable utensils or effective food dispensing methods that protect the food from contamination. After being served or sold, food that is unused or returned by the consumer may not be re-offered as food for human consumption. 

Should meat and poultry be stacked above the cooling level of the display case?

In order for meat and poultry to be stored at the required safe temperatures, fresh and frozen products should not be stacked above the cooling level of refrigerator and freezer display cases. The foods should be arranged to maintain the recommended temperature of 5 degrees C (41 degrees F) in the Food Code unless the state prescribes a different temperature (for example, many states allow shell eggs to be stored at 45 degrees F). 

Is food product dating required by federal law?

Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not required by federal regulations. However, if a calendar date is used, it must express both the month and day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products). If a calendar date is shown, immediately adjacent to the date must be a phrase explaining the meaning of that date such as "sell by" or "use before." 

There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. 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 some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated. 

What types of food are dated?

"Open" dating, or dates you can read, are found primarily on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. "Closed" or "coded" dating might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food. 

Types of dates

There are several types of dates:

  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.

  • 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 date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

  • "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

Safety after date expires

Except for "use-by" dates, product dates don't always refer to home storage and use after purchase. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality—if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees F or below. 

Foods can develop an off odor, flavor, or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons. 

If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness—before or after the date on the package. For example, if a package of hot dogs is taken to a picnic and left out several hours, the hot dogs wouldn't be safe to use, even if the date hasn't expired. 

Other examples of potential mishandling are products that have been defrosted at room temperature more than two hours, cross contaminated, or handled by people who don't use proper sanitary practices. Make sure to follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label to ensure top quality and safety. 

How can some products have lengthy storage dates?

Product dating is not required by Federal regulations. But a plant may use shelf-life studies to determine a sell-by or use-by date for its products. If the plant has dated a "keep-refrigerated" product, it promises the consumer it will be safe to use until at least that time, assuming the consumer is storing the product at 40 degrees F or below. 

Some packaging procedures that can lengthen safe storage of perishable foods are vacuum packaging and MAP. If a fresh meat or poultry product does not have a date affixed at the plant: refrigerate raw poultry and ground meat up to two days; beef, veal, pork, and lamb, three to five days. Cook or freeze within those times. Hot dogs and luncheon meats can be refrigerated unopened up to two weeks but no longer than one week after a "sell-by" date. After opening, use or freeze hot dogs within seven days; luncheon meats, within three to five days.