If Meat Changes Color, Has It Gone Bad?

updated Aug 11, 2022
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What happens if you forgot your ground beef or chicken breasts in the fridge for a couple of days? Do you need to scrap your plans for burgers or chicken for dinner? Is it still safe to eat or should you throw it out?

The good news is, even if there’s a color change, the meat or poultry is still perfectly fine to eat if stored properly in the refrigerator or freezer and consumed within a safe period of time (up to two days for ground meat and five days for other cuts).

When trying to determine if meat has gone bad, you want to look at more than color. If the meat or poultry has a bad odor or is sticky, tacky, or slimy to the touch, it’s time to pitch it.

What Causes Meat and Poultry to Change Color?

From red meat to poultry, here’s why meat can change color and what it means.

Why Red Meat Changes Color

Appearance no doubt plays a big part in what we think of as fresh, and in the case of red meat, you probably equate a bright-red color with freshness.

According to the USDA, this color is a result of the protein in meat called myoglobin, which turns into oxymyoglobin and produces a vivid red color when it comes into contact with oxygen.

Not all red meat is the same color, though — color is influenced by many factors for the animal raised for the meat, including:

  • diet
  • sex
  • exercise
  • species
  • age (an older animal produces darker-colored meat)

Prolonged exposure to air and light will also darken meat that starts out bright red. You’ve probably pre-formed hamburger patties start to turn gray on the outside, but remain red or pink inside.

Color changes can also occur if raw meat is frozen, where it can fade or darken in color.

Why Poultry Changes Color

As with red meat, the color variations in raw poultry can result from differences in diet, breed, exercise, and age. Poultry can also change in color when frozen.

However, spoilage also causes changes in the texture, taste, odor, and color of the chicken.

“Spoilage bacteria can cause meat or poultry to turn a dark color, develop an objectionable odor, and become slimy,” according to a knowledge article on the USDA’s website. “Meat with these characteristics should not be used.”

Color alone usually doesn’t indicate poultry has gone bad. If you’ve stored it safely in the fridge and the chicken isn’t slimy or has a foul smell, it should be fine to use.