Food tips • health

How To Tell If Ground Beef Is Bad: Smell, Sight, & More

Written by Emily Fawcett
8 Minute Read
Published on Feb 06, 2023

Ground beef is the perfect choice for so many dinner options. Burgers, lasagna, taco night … even for the pickiest of eaters, there's bound to be something that ground beef can cover. 

Still, ground beef won’t last forever in your fridge, and you certainly don’t want to serve up spoiled meat. Avoiding food-borne illness should always be a priority in every kitchen, whether commercial or at home. 

So, how do you know whether or not your recently purchased ground beef has become unsafe to eat? Don’t worry! In most cases, there are plenty of hard-to-miss signs that your beef should just be tossed as well as a few failsafe options to keep you and your family safe. 

Here’s how to tell if your ground beef is bad. 

Why Does Ground Beef Spoil?

Unfortunately, all meat will eventually go bad. Still, it’s helpful to know exactly what’s going on when inspecting your beef and even trying to ensure that it lasts as long as possible. Meat is generally susceptible to a variety of bacteria, especially pathogenic and spoilage.

Pathogenic won’t cause any odors, color changes, or noticeable changes in your meat. However, it will certainly still cause illness. Meanwhile, spoilagebacteria will cause observable effects on your ground beef that we’ll discuss further in this article.

It’s important to keep both of these bacteria in mind when inspecting your ground beef. Both will make you sick, but only one will show signs.


This may be the first thing you notice if your beef has gone bad, even before you open the fridge. Spoiled beef will develop a scent to it similar to ammonia or sulfur. In short, it won’t smell good. 

Occasionally ground beef will develop a light smell if it’s been in airtight packaging, and that’s alright. But if you take a whiff and you’re immediately making a face, that’s your body's natural reaction to something that should not be consumed. 


Healthy ground beef will be pink with strips of white fat running through it. Oxidation — AKA overexposure to oxygen — will lead to a bit of grayness, which isn’t necessarily the end of the road. 

However, if your meat is turned fully gray, has patches of dark gray, or has started to develop any amount of mold, it’s time to throw away the entire package. Do not be tempted to remove the mold you can see and salvage the ground beef remaining. There very well may be more mold growing beneath the surface. 


If your ground beef has a funky odor and looks unappetizing, it’s safe to say that it’s gone bad and should be tossed out. However, if you need more confirmation, you can always check the meat’s texture. 

Healthy ground beef will be smooth, and you should be able to make an indent when you push your finger into it. If the meat has gone bad, the surface will feel slimy and wet.

You shouldn’t feel any wetness on ground beef, particularly raw beef. 


As we mentioned, some bacteria don’t show any observable signs of spoilage. It won't smell, look, or feel different. But you can always double-check the time that the beef has been on the shelf and use that number as your final decider. 

Raw beef should be consumed within 3 days of getting it into your fridge since it was recently packaged. Always double-check your ground beef's packing and expiration dates, whether you get it at a grocery store, butcher it, or have it delivered from a high-quality local farm. 

Consequences of Eating Old Ground Beef

Unfortunately, many people 48 million people every year will experience food poisoning at one point or another. Consuming ground beef that’s just begun to go bad can be very dangerous, depending on your age and personal health. 

The most common bacteria that grow within meat are E Coli and Salmonella- it isn't just cookie dough you need to look out for. These bacteria can cause stomach issues like diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and intense stomach cramps. 

If you do end up contracting bacteria from bad beef, it may take a few days to show symptoms or suddenly rush up on you. Make sure to have plenty of fluids available, preferably with electrolytes and vitamins if possible. 

How To Prolong Ground Beef’s Shelf Life

Bacteria in your ground beef live and grow in certain conditions, so helping your meat avoid those conditions will extend its shelf life. Here are all the best practices for how to handle your beef. 


One critical component that the bacteria need to grow is oxygen. It turns out the same life-giving element we need from the air is the same that these nasty bacteria need! 

That’s why it’s important to purchase ground beef that’s in a vacuum-sealed package whenever possible and continue storage in airtight containers.

Especially for raw beef, using a ziplock bag and rolling out as much air as possible is your best plan unless you have actual vacuum-sealing bags. Tupperware containers don’t keep out the oxygen that you close in with the beef, so they can only protect your meat so much from going bad. 

Save the Tupperware for already-cooked beef, and use the airtight bags for anything raw. 


According to the FDA, bacteria grows in a specific window of temperature, from 40 degrees to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The middle of this window is, of course, about the same temperature most of us keep our homes. 

To help prolong your beef, try to ensure that it doesn’t spend too much time outside the fridge or freezer. If you’re getting it home from the grocery store, don’t stop somewhere along the way and spend time dilly-dallying. 

Make sure your ground beef spends as little time outside of the cold as possible until it’s time to cook. Never let raw, ground beef go unrefrigerated for more than two hours — or else you run the risk of bacteria getting into your meal.

When reheating your meat, to avoid any possible bacteria that could’ve developed, always make sure your ground beef reaches an internal temperature of 160 in order to kill off anything that could end up making you sick. 

Fridge vs. Freezer

Of course, you don’t want to cook rock-solid frozen ground beef, so you’re likely keeping it in the fridge. If your fridge keeps everything under 40 degrees, that’s a perfect place to keep meat … for about two to three days. Unfortunately, you won't get too much more time out of raw or cooked beef. You’ll want to watch it closely for the signs we discussed earlier. 

However, beef kept in the freezer will stay edible for up to 4 months which is obviously way more time. This means you can stock up on ground beef, keep it frozen for months, pull it out the night before, and thaw it in the fridge overnight to cook the next day. 

Never leave frozen raw beef on the counter overnight; only use warm water to thaw frozen meat in an absolute pinch.

Purchase High-Quality Meat

While it won’t necessarily make the meat last longer, you can certainly trust high-quality farms and meats to have fewer bacteria, to begin with, more so than the meat aisle at a sketchy grocery store. 

USDA grade A beef is raised with full care, no antibiotics or growth hormones by farmers who care and pay attention to disease and cleanliness while raising the animals and packaging the meat. 

If you don’t feel confident buying meat from a certain place, we recommend listening to your instincts and moving on. Even if they have a certain packing or expiration date, it’s hard to know what handling protocols are being taken behind the counter. 

In Conclusion

Ground beef is affordable, easily accessible, and has the potential to go bad fairly quickly. Always keep an eye on raw beef. Avoid eating anything that seems to have gone gray, is growing mold, or has an unpleasant scent. It’s best to play it safe with meat in general — and if you find yourself questioning whether or not it’s good, err on the side that it probably isn't. 

To make the most out of your beef purchase, use airtight containers and keep it refrigerated as much as possible until you’re ready to cook. And if you decide to change your plans and go out for dinner instead of making burgers, remember to put ground beef in the freezer, where it will last much longer and quickly thaw out when you are ready to make something delicious!


Food Poisoning Symptoms | CDC

Lipid oxidation in meat: mechanisms and protective factors – a review | SciELO

Fast Facts About Food Poisoning | CDC.

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