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Have you ever watched those TV cooking competitions where the judges ridicule the chefs when they serve chicken that is still pink on the inside and remind them of the dangers of undercooked meat?
Well, there’s something worse than serving or consuming undercooked chicken: serving or consuming spoiled pork. When pork gets rancid, due to warm temperatures, bacteria, fungus, or packaging, you can get very sick if you eat it.
Here are some key ways to determine if the pork you’re considering cooking is spoiled:
Plain old smelling it is the best way to figure out if the pork is rotten. Fresh pork has very little smell. As meat spoils, it undergoes structural and chemical changes that alter the scent of the meat.
If it smells like ammonia, fish, gas, or sulfur, the meat is no good. Don’t cook it or eat it. Sometimes the packaging, especially plastic or foam, will add a funny smell to pork. That does not necessarily mean that it’s spoiled.
If you’re unsure, go ahead and rinse the pork, pat it dry, and smell it again. If the smell is gone, it might have been the packaging smell. If the smell remains, then it’s spoiled.
Pro Tip: Although everyone’s olfactory senses vary, and what smells sweet to one person smells stinky to another, the particular scent of spoiled pork is pretty easy for your nose to confirm.
At the store: If you’re at the grocery store, you can sometimes smell the rot when you walk back to the meat section. You may want to shop at markets where you’ve purchased quality pork before, or at a grocery or butcher where they package the meat to order.
You can, however, ask the butcher to unpack the meat so that you can examine it before buying it.
Spoiled pork feels slimy to the touch. (Sometimes you can even see the slime.) Pork that is not spoiled has a particular tender but firm feel; if the meat is soft and squishy, it has started to spoil.
Additionally, the texture of fresh pork will be consistent throughout the cut of the meat. If the texture is inconsistent, that is a sign that the pork is spoiled.
The change in the texture of rotting pork once again results from the presence of bacteria and the chemical and structural alterations that their presence creates.
Rotten pork experiences color changes that are easy to recognize with a visual examination. If you see a greenish-yellow, shiny, almost opalescent tint to the meat (you can often see this tint illuminating if you turn the pork slightly), the pork is past its prime.
Interesting fact: Sliced deli ham (also a pork product!) also gets that shiny opalescent tint when it’s going bad.)
The yeast that develops on spoiled pork makes the color change. Other changes you might see are a greyish, brownish, or greenish hue. Fresh pork will be pink and the fat white.
Check the underside of the pork, too. Sometimes the bottom part that is sitting next to the packaging changes color, indicating spoilage, even if the top of the meat is still pink.
Mold. If you see mold on a piece of pork, that’s another visual indicator that the meat has spoiled. I know mold makes life-saving penicillin, and most of us have accidentally ingested “homemade” mold on cheese or bread, but meat is another story. Also, your fridge is not a lab, so 1) you can’t create sterile conditions; and 2) you can’t separate the penicillin mold from molds created by other kinds of harmful bacteria.
Freezer burn. If you have stored your pork in the freezer for too long, you might see freezer burn, which is another indication that the pork should be thrown out. Freezer burn does not necessarily mean the pork will make you sick, but freezer burn certainly has its own particular taste, and it’s not fresh.
- Check the packaging
This may seem pretty obvious, but all prepackaged meat comes with a printed expiration date. This might say “Enjoy by…” or “Freshest by…” or “Best before….” or just “Expires on…” with the date stamped next to it. Check that date, and if it’s past that, toss the pork.
Pro-tip: There are two major reasons for not wanting to part with spoiled meat:
1) No one likes to waste food, especially when nearly 30% of the world’s population is experiencing food shortage; and
2) you might not have anything else in the house to substitute for the meal you’re preparing.
Neither of these reasons will matter at all if you’re writhing in pain from food poisoning. And you don’t want to risk getting your loved ones sick, either.
Can I cook off the bacteria and still eat the meat?
Bacteria spreads quickly and it also spreads toxins. You may be able to kill the bacteria by cooking the rotten pork, but the toxins will remain despite the cooking process and you can still become very ill. Please don’t try to cook the rancid off and eat the pork. This is very dangerous.
If you get food poisoning, you may experience nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and severe stomach cramping. Other signs of food poisoning include loss of appetite and weakness; it’s important to stay hydrated, especially if you have diarrhea and vomiting, which can cause dehydration.
However, the easiest solution is to do your best to package, store, and keep track of your pork’s expiration date in order to avoid getting sick in the first place.
Packaging and Storing
If you have a grocery or butcher that sells sealed pre-packed raw meat, then you can keep it refrigerated for a day or two. If your butcher packs the pork for you from the meat counter, you might consider repackaging it if you’re not using it the same day.
If it’s going to be uncooked for longer than that, wrap it with freezer-grade foil or plastic. Ground pork will last about 3 months in the freezer; other cuts up to 6 months. Make sure you label and date the meat.
Pork, as well as all meat, should always be stored on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator, or in one of the bottom drawers. If you store pork on the top and the juice drips down, you run the risk of contaminating the vegetables, fruits, and other staples on the shelves below the pork.
Pro tip: I always put raw meat (well wrapped, of course!) on a silicone mat or towel in the refrigerator in order to avoid cross-contamination and also to prevent dirtying the fridge.
Always thaw meat in the refrigerator. Don’t leave it out on the counter to defrost all day or overnight. Extended time in a warm environment is a breeding ground for bacteria. The USDA outlines the proper handling of raw food. The USDA’s “Danger Zone” is 40 °F to 140 °F (4.44 °C to 60 °C).
Raw food needs to be stored below 40 °F, which means you have to keep it in the refrigerator (or on ice in a cooler if you’re going camping) until you are ready to cook it. Food should never be left out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours. If you’re in really hot weather, above 90 °F (32 °C), reduce that limit to 1 hour.
There are a number of harmful bacteria that flourish on room-temperature meat:
- Staphylococcus aureus (you do not want a staph infection)
- Salmonella Enteritidis
- Escherichia coli
These bacteria grow exponentially in a very short period of time – in just 20 minutes they are capable of doubling in number.
Check the temperature of your refrigerator, too, to make sure you’re at 40 °F or less. If you’re barbecuing in the backyard, store your meat in a cooler by the grill or put food containers on ice.
After Cooking. We’ve covered proper storage for raw meat, but you can’t forget about food safety just because pork is cooked. Remember the other end of the USDA’s “Danger Zone:” keep hot food hot.
Cooked food needs to remain hot, above 140 °F (60 °C). Don’t keep a platter of grilled pork chops on the patio in the middle of summer: use a chafing dish, warming tray, or steam table.
Inside, keep things on very low heat in the oven (covered, to keep it from drying) in a dutch oven on the stovetop or in the oven, or in a slow cooker.
Tip: Put a metal pan on the bottom rack of the oven and put an inch of water in the pan. This will keep the pork that’s heating on the middle rack moist. Be sure to use metal, not glass, as the glass can shatter in the oven. Trust me, you don’t want to have to clean that up.
Also, fill the pan with water after situating the pan in the oven. If you fill it before, water will slosh all over. I usually boil water in the kettle on my stove and then pour it into the pan. Hot water won’t sizzle like cold water, and then pour spout from the kettle controls the direction of the water and I can even pour it through the middle rack.
After the meal. Our quest to prevent pork spoilage does not end after the meal is over. People often worry about foodborne illness in relation to raw food, but not cooling cooked foods correctly is one of the easiest ways to get food poisoning.
Even if you have cooked pork safely, you can still reintroduce bacteria if you don’t cool and store the food properly. Make sure to store cooked pork in shallow containers – if you stack pork pieces on top of each other, they’ll take longer to cool to the safe 40 °F temperature.
Cooling needs to take place within 2 hours of cooking to ensure safety from bacteria.
Once you have defrosted a package of pork, you have to cook and consume it. Never refreeze meat that has already been frozen. Some pork says “previously frozen” on the packaging. If that’s the case, don’t freeze it again.
If you plan your meals out for the week, you’re less likely to forget about pork and other meats that you have stored in the fridge, which in turn decreases the chances of the pork spoiling.
Calendar. You can use your calendar to mark the day you purchased a cut of pork, or mark the week that you need to pull some frozen pork out of the freezer so that you can cook it before it goes bad.
It is vital that pork is handled carefully and consistently the whole time it is in your possession. That begins when you choose a cut of pork at the market or butcher and continues until all the pork has been consumed.
Remember these tips:
- Look for pork that is fresh and pink on all sides. Ask the butcher to show you the entire cut. Notice the expiration date on prepackaged meats and go with your instinct on how the pork is stored at the grocery and how the area smells.
- Use raw meat within two days of purchasing or freeze it, according to the specifications provided above.
- Ensure that packaging is secure at the store and at home, both in the refrigerator and the freezer.
- Keep your pork out of the USDA’s “Danger Zone:” keep food temperature cold below 40 °F (4.44 °C) and hot at 140 °F (60 °C) or above.
- Prevent bacteria growth by not leaving pork unrefrigerated before or after cooking.
- Check pork at every stage for signs of spoilage: smell (ammonia, sulfur, gas); touch (slimy, soft); and appearance (any color besides pink) and discard any pork whose freshness you can’t verify.
- Check social media, news outlets, and the USDA website for reports of recalled pork and make sure you don’t have any of the recalled products in your refrigerator or freezer.
- Using a tracking system to monitor when you purchased cuts of pork so that you use the meat before it spoils.
- Incorporate meal planning into your food routine so that you can ensure the freshest use of your high-quality pork products.