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How to tell if ground beef is bad

4 easy ways to check if ground beef has gone bad

Ground beef is a favorite in many dishes but can spoil quickly. Here are 4 ways how to determine if it's past its prime.

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4 simple ways to check if ground beef is bad
Last updated on January 21, 2024, and last reviewed by an expert on October 6, 2023.

Ground beef is often a favorite for making burgers, but how can you know if it’s still good to eat? Look out for changes in its color, texture, and smell, and always consider its expiration date.

4 simple ways to check if ground beef is bad

Grinding meat increases its surface area, it can spoil more quickly than bigger meat cuts like steak.

There are two main bacteria types that might be present in ground beef: spoilage bacteria and pathogenic bacteria. While spoilage bacteria make the food taste and smell off, they aren’t harmful. However, pathogenic bacteria can cause illnesses. Spoiled meat can increase the risk of harmful bacteria, so even if spoilage bacteria won’t harm you, always throw away bad ground beef to prevent health risks.

Here are 4 signs to determine if your ground beef isn’t fresh anymore:

In this article

1. Examine the color

Ground beef’s color can shift due to reasons like temperature changes, exposure to light, microbial activity, or oxygen exposure.

Usually, fresh ground beef is red because of a pigment created when myoglobin, a protein, interacts with oxygen.

If the inside of the meat is a greyish brown, it’s usually because it hasn’t been in contact with oxygen. This color change isn’t a sign of spoilage.

But, if the outer part turns brown or gray, it’s a sign of the meat starting to decay. If you spot any mold or odd colors, especially on cooked meat, it’s best to discard it.

2. Feel the texture

Testing the texture is another way to check your meat. Fresh ground beef should be somewhat firm and crumble when pressed.

If it feels sticky or slimy, whether it’s cooked or raw, it’s likely spoiled. If this is the case, get rid of it right away.

And remember, after handling raw meat, always wash your hands well to prevent spreading any bacteria.

3. Trust your nose

One of the quickest ways to check if your meat is still fresh is by giving it a good sniff. This is effective for both raw and cooked ground beef.

While fresh ground beef has a mild scent, bad meat will have a strong, unpleasant smell. When the beef is off, consuming it is risky.

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This change in aroma comes from the growth of bacteria like Lactobacillus spp. and Pseudomonas spp., which can also alter the taste of the meat.

Even if the smell seems okay, but there are visible issues with color or texture, it’s better to err on the side of caution and discard the meat. Remember, harmful bacteria often don’t have a noticeable smell.

4. Pay attention to the expiration date

Checking the sell-by and expiration dates can give more clarity about your beef’s freshness.

A sell-by date is a guideline for stores on how long they can sell a product. You can safely consume ground beef up to 2 days after this date, as long as it’s refrigerated.

The expiration date, sometimes labeled “best before”, indicates when the meat might begin to deteriorate. It tastes best if consumed before this date.

Avoid eating ground beef after its expiration date, unless it has been frozen. Frozen beef can be good for up to 4 months.

Always read the packaging details when purchasing your beef.

What happens if you consume spoiled beef?

Eating bad ground beef can pose health risks due to potentially harmful bacteria. Symptoms of foodborne illnesses can include fever, vomiting, stomach pains, and even bloody diarrhea.

Bacteria multiply quickly, especially in food left out at room temperature, and are more prevalent in spoiled items.

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The main culprits in ground beef are usually Salmonella and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). Infections caused by these bacteria are not uncommon. Symptoms can take a few days to manifest.

To minimize your risk of illness, ensure you cook your ground beef thoroughly, aiming for an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) as confirmed with a meat thermometer.

Always prioritize safety and steer clear of raw or bad ground beef.

Safe handling tips for ground beef

To ensure you don’t get sick from ground beef, follow these safety practices:

Always clean your hands well after handling beef. And, don’t forget to sanitize kitchen surfaces and tools.

Frequently asked questions about ground beef

Here are some frequently raised points about ground beef:

What does spoiled ground beef smell like?

Bad ground beef emits a strong, off-putting odor. Fresh ground beef usually has a faint or neutral scent.

Can ground beef have a scent even if not expired?

Every ground beef has a mild iron-like smell. As it approaches its expiration, the scent might become slightly stronger but not necessarily bad. If it smells very off, it’s probably spoiled and should be tossed out.

Suggested read: Can you eat expired eggs?

Is grey ground beef safe to cook?

It’s normal for ground beef to be red or pink on the outside and grey or brown on the inside, mainly due to less oxygen reaching the inner part. But, if the beef’s outer layer is grey, it’s a sign it’s gone bad and shouldn’t be eaten.


Ground beef is a versatile food choice but requires careful handling.

To determine its freshness, check for alterations in its color, smell, and feel. While spoilage bacteria aren’t typically harmful, when beef goes bad, harmful bacteria can thrive. To stay safe, thoroughly cook your beef and steer clear of any beef that seems spoiled or undercooked.

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