Recent global media reports speak of “rotten” or “tainted” meat being used in overseas meat processing and foodservice operations. Was the meat really spoiled or did it get handled in a manner that was acceptable but that wasn’t conveyed to employees or end users? All too often, dates on meat packages are confusing and product quality is confused with product safety. Product quality refers to properties such as flavor, including off-flavors, juiciness, tenderness and other things that can affect how a product will taste but will not make someone sick by eating it. Product safety needs to be maintained so that people eating the product do not become ill after eating it.
Meat processors take great pride in making products that are safe and wholesome. A meat product must be handled, stored and cooked properly to maintain safety. Most often, product quality limits the shelf-life of a product before product safety is of concern. For fresh meat, the most common limiting food quality factor is color in retail settings. Meat purchased by foodservice establishments is often vacuum packaged and color is not an issue. Purge, the amount of water and proteins released from meat in a package over time, is likely the major quality factor that can affect other taste attributes like juiciness and flavor.
In general, meat sold in retail is labeled differently than meat sold for use in foodservice. Consumers can be confused by the different “expiration” dates on meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does not determine shelf life of meat products, meat processors do. Again, the quality of a meat product typically decreases before the safety of a meat product is of concern. But FSIS does closely monitor food safety practices in meat plants that contribute to safe and wholesome meat products. Most meat plants err on the side of caution and any dates they do put on product is well in advance of any food safety issue.
Frozen storage is often used to extend the shelf-life of a meat product beyond the date on the package. Frozen meat, if kept continually frozen, is safe indefinitely. Product quality will suffer before any food safety issues occur with frozen meat. Thus, a meat product could be frozen on or before an expiration date and then properly thawed and cooked.
Management at foodservice operations should have a protocol in place for properly storing and managing dates on meat products, even if freezing meat on or before a given expiration date. They need to convey the protocol to employees so that dates are not looked at after meat is thawed and thought to be spoiled or expired. Michigan State University Extension urges foodservice providers to include an additional label on the meat with a “frozen on” date label. This would prevent employees or other end users thinking that “rotten” or “tainted” meat is being used by the company.