Choosing wholesome meat and getting those products home safely will start you on the path to preventing foodborne illness.
As a general rule, shop for meat products last. Keep frozen and refrigerated foods together in the cart. Meat products will either be fresh (cold but not frozen) or frozen.
What should you look for when selecting fresh meat?
The package should be sealed. Don't buy packages that are open, torn or crushed.
Look for the "sell by" date on the package. The meat may be on sale several days before the sell-by date. If you purchase this meat, freeze it or use it by the sell-by date. Although product dating is not required, most meat and meat products will have a sell-by date on the label.
The sell-by date and packaging condition are better indicators of the freshness of meat than is the color.
Fresh meat is red when it is film wrapped and it is dark purple if it is vacuum packaged. The pigment responsible for meat color can turn brown when there is some, but not much, air present. You might see this at the center of a chub of ground beef that is cherry red on the outside.
When the outside of fresh meat is brown, it may be safe but it has been stored long enough that the pigment is degrading. This may indicate the meat is old and getting ready to spoil.
Put meat in plastic bags provided in the meat section. Packages should not be leaking.
Fresh meat and poultry should be packed apart from other foods in your shopping cart where juices will not drip onto foods that might be eaten raw, like lettuce and fresh fruit.
What should you look for when selecting frozen meat?
Only buy frozen meats that are completely frozen. There should not be frozen liquid or ice crystals in the package, as this indicates that the product temperature has been above freezing at some time.
Do I need to worry about how long my meat is in the car?
When running errands, do your grocery shopping right before you plan to go home to reduce the amount of time your groceries will be without refrigeration.
Avoid leaving refrigerated or frozen foods in warm places such as the trunk of a car.
During the summer, when the time from the store to your home refrigerator is more than one hour or when the temperature is 90 F or above, make sure to have an ice pack in an insulated cooler for transporting meat.
Remember to put the meat into the refrigerator or freezer immediately after you arrive home. Bacteria can quickly multiply and cause food to spoil or make it unsafe.
Bacteria produce the slime, toxins, off colors and odors associated with food spoilage. However, disease-causing bacteria can grow without changing the odor, color or texture of the food. For this reason, keeping meat cold enough to prevent bacterial growth (or heating it to a temperature which kills them) is critical.
Food spoilage bacteria grow best at environmental temperatures of 70 to 100 F. They will grow more slowly at temperatures above and below this temperature range. Your refrigerator should be between 34 and 40 F because most bacteria grow extremely slowly, if at all, in this range.
Check the temperature of your refrigerator with a thermometer even if your refrigerator is new.
Source: University of Illinois Extension
Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.