Stick a thermometer in cheap, stinky meat

The quest for discounted groceries has hit the news again with South Carolina news reporter Larry Collins asking,

“Stores slash prices about 50% – 60% on meat when it is nearing the date on the packaging. But, is that food safe to eat?”

According to registered dietitian Charlotte Caperton-Kilburn, such meat is typically safe to consume as long as you cook or freeze it as soon as you bring it home… and it smells okay.

“If the meat smells even remotely strange it should be returned to the store or thrown away,” Caperton-Kilburn told the news station.

In Ireland, Darina Allen wrote in an opinion piece for the Irish Examiner that, just the other night, she found a vac-packed duck in the back of her fridge that smelled “good and high.” Rather than throw it out, she “gave it a good wash inside and out and rubbed a bit of salt into the skin and roasted it.”

Her guests said it was delicious.

Allen reminisced about life before modern conveniences like electric refrigeration and explained, “We learned from our mothers how to judge with our senses whether food was safe.” She asserted that, “in just a few years, many people have lost the ability to judge for themselves when food is safe to eat.”

While most groceries sold in the US have a date consumers can read and use, the USDA only requires manufacturers of infant formula and baby food to determine and display a “Use by” date on their products—and this is mainly for the sake of ensuring nutrient quality. The others are voluntary and only describe when the food will probably taste best. Assessing safety is still up to the consumer.

Modern technologies like stamped dates and color-changing barcodes can help consumers with that assessment, as can the senses of sight and smell. The most reliable safeguard, though, is cooking to a temperature that studies have found will effectively kill pathogens. For poultry, this is 165F.

Chefs may tell you to use your senses to figure temperature, too, but only by using a tip-sensitive digital thermometer can you know for sure.  It’s the consumer’s choice, as always, but I’d rather be sure than be positive for salmonella.