Meat is a highly perishable food item, so extra care and special attention are needed to make sure that you keep meat fresh so that it will remain a high quality, wholesome product. Spoilage and unwholesomeness of meat are caused by bacteria and other microorganisms. There are two different groups of bacteria that affect refrigerated meat. Pathogenic bacteria make us sick, whilst spoilage bacteria make our food go bad and make our refrigerators smell. By smell, sight and taste, you cannot identify whether meat contains pathogenic bacteria, unlike meat contaminated with spoilage bacteria.
In a refrigerated state, spoilage bacteria thrives. The fact that all food in a refrigerator eventually spoils proves this. Spoiled food doesn’t make you sick, it might taste bad but unless it contains pathogenic bacteria, your digestive system will be fine. Unrefrigerated meat, if left out on the counter for a few hours, might smell and look okay, but may be loaded with pathogenic bacteria. This contamination usually happens during cutting and processing. These bacteria require certain conditions to grow; a very low acidity level (near neutral pH) within the meat; a supply of water or other moisture, for example meat juices, or a warm temperature, usually somewhere between 45° and 127°F.
There are five basic meat types, each one requiring special storage techniques. They are cooked, frozen, fresh, cured and canned meat.
Cooked meats should be used within a week of preparation, or properly frozen and wrapped for use later.
Meat can be kept for longer periods of time if it is frozen at -10°F or below. After it is frozen, maintain the temperature at 0°F or lower. Most side-by-side and chest-type freezers can maintain this temperature while most ice compartments in refrigerators cannot, so it is not recommended to store meat in this compartment.
Try to limit freezer storage time on all meats to maintain their quality and freshness. Freezing meat won’t improve the quality, but it will retain its natural color, texture, nutritional value and flavor.
Refrigerate fresh meats at temperatures of 38° to 40°F for as long as possible.
Fresh meat should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, this in usually towards the back, away from the door. If it is to be used within two days, leave the meat in its original wrapping. If it is to be stored longer, rewrap the meat in freezer wrap and freeze.
Cured, smoked, and ready-to-eat meats include bacon, ham, sausage products and smoked pork. The heat, processing and smoking of these items inactivates most enzymes and bacteria. These products should remain in their original wrapping to prevent any further contamination. After opening, most cured meat will stay fresh for approximately a week in the refrigerator and should be stored in airtight containers to prevent odors in the fridge. Luncheon meats should not be frozen.
There are two varieties of canned meat, some require refrigeration, like hams, and some don’t, like corned beef, chili con carne and dried meats.
Storage suggestions for cooked, fresh and processed meats:
Meat in The Refrigerator
- Ground beef, veal, and lamb – 1 to 2 days
- Ground pork – 1 to 2 days
- Sausage, fresh pork – 1 week
- Veal (fresh) – 2 to 4 days
- Beef (fresh) – 2 to 4 days
- Lamb (fresh) – 2 to 4 days
- Pork (fresh) – 2 to 4 days
- Luncheon meats – 1 week
- Smoked ham, whole – 1 week
- Ham slices – 3 to 4 days
- Sausage, smoked – 3 to 7 days
- Sausage, dry & semi-dry (unsliced) – 2 to 3 weeks
- Bacon – 5 to 7 days
- Meat pies (cooked) – Not recommended
- Swiss steak (cooked) – Not recommended
- Leftover cooked meat – 1 week
- Prepared meat dinners – Not recommended
- Beef, corned – 1 week
- Frankfurters – 4 to 5 days
Refrigerator should be 36 to 40°F
Meat in The Freezer
- Ground beef, veal, and lamb – 3 to 4 months
- Ground pork – 1 to 3 months
- Sausage, fresh pork – 60 days
- Veal (fresh) – 6 to 9 months
- Beef (fresh) – 6 to 12 months
- Lamb (fresh) – 6 to 9 months
- Pork (fresh) – 3 to 6 months
- Luncheon meats – Not recommended
- Smoked ham, whole – 60 days
- Ham slices – 60 days
- Sausage, smoked – Not recommended
- Sausage, dry & semi-dry (unsliced) – Not recommended
- Bacon – 1 month
- Stews (cooked) – 3 to 4 months
- Meat pies (cooked) – 3 months
- Swiss steak (cooked) – 3 months
- Leftover cooked meat – 2 to 3 months
- Prepared meat dinners – 2 to 6 months
- Beef, corned – 2 weeks
- Frankfurters – 4 to 5 days
Freezer should be 0°F or lower
Mark Gold has more than 27 years of experience in the Food and Beverage Industry. He has written numerous articles on foods and food preservation.