When it comes to storing meat, the freezer is perhaps the most revolutionary invention. Now, consumers can eat meat at their leisure rather than being forced to get rid of an entire animal quickly after it has been killed. As the name suggests, a freezer freezes the decaying process for meat, but everything has its limits. How can you tell when it is time to throw frozen meat away, and what are the risks of eating improperly frozen meat?

Is there a time limit?

According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA, meat that has been continuously frozen remains safe to eat forever. However, meat that is left in the freezer for too long will have diminished taste and texture quality when it has been cooked. Depending on the type of meat, frozen meat keeps full flavor for between two months and a year. Meat that is not continuously frozen, however, can present health hazards.

Know the difference

Although freezer burn means that the food probably won’t have its usual taste and texture, it is not dangerous. However, freezer marks can reveal hidden dangers. Freezer burn usually forms in an even layer over a large patch of meat or an entire container. If ice only appears in a small section, typically where the bag or container makes contact with the freezer, it can signify that there was a puddle of water in that spot at one time. Signs of a water puddle underneath frozen meat means that the meat began to thaw in the past and it has since been refrozen. Meat that has been partially thawed and refrozen should not be consumed by humans.

In normal circumstances, it would be safe to thaw and refreeze raw or cooked meat. When a puddle (or the frozen remnants of one) is discovered in the freezer, there is no way to tell when or for how long the meat thawed. Meat is only safe to refreeze if it was never warmed up to a temperature higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the USDA. Once it passes that temperature threshold, harmful bacteria can grow on the meat. Eating meat that was found in a frozen puddle is potentially as dangerous as eating meat that has been left out at room temperature for days.

The same bacteria that are responsible for national meat recalls, are found in meat that does not make people sick. In normal circumstances, germs are killed when the meat is heated. When meat thaws to a temperature higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the pathogens in the meat have a golden opportunity to grow exponentially. After this happens, cooking the meat will not kill all of the germs. Heat kills most bacteria, but residual poisons produced by the bacteria will remain in the meat and make people sick. Consuming this thawed meat can cause food poisoning, resulting in symptoms ranging from diarrhea to death. 

What is the risk?

Food poisoning is most often characterized by stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, but it can become much more serious. Bacteria such as e.Coli, listeria, staphylococcus, salmonella, shigella, and Clostridium are just a few of the pathogens that can lurk in improperly frozen meat.

Some food poisoning related pathogens cause flu-like symptoms, such as body aches and fevers. Severe cases of food poisoning can cause organ failure. Bacterias cause serious bodily infections. Although it is most common for these infections to begin in the stomach, they can spread through other organs. As bacteria starts to grow in another organ, that organ’s function is hijacked by the bacteria. The organ spends most of its resource producing bacteria and it either slows down or stops performing its natural function altogether, which can be lethal if not treated in time. 

If the meat looks bad, smells bad, looks likes it’s been thawed, or has rips in the packaging, throw it away. No dish is worth the risk!