Because meat is considered a time/temperature control for safety (TCS) food, bacteria can thrive on it if it is not handled properly. There are certain aspects of meat that you can look for when you receive it to make sure it is fresh and ready to use!
1. Fingerprint test
One of the quickest ways to check if meat is fresh is by gently pressing the meat with your finger or thumb. If it is fresh, it should bounce back into shape. If it is older meat, it will leave the fingerprint and not bounce back. If that happens, reject that shipment. You should also check the meat and reject or discard it if it is discolored or has an off odor.
2. Know which cuts you ordered
There are many different types of meat cuts and poultry you can buy, and some are better used for different dishes than others. In particular, the USDA has identified three types of cuts for beef: prime, choice and select. The main difference is how well the meat is marbled with fat. The more fat and marbling there is in the meat, the higher its quality. Prime beef will usually have the most marbling, choice beef has slightly less, and select beef usually has the least amount of marbling and is usually the leanest.
Although the safety of the meat is not affected by the marbling, you will want to make sure you get what you paid for!
3. Verify meat and meat products are frozen
Just like any other frozen food, frozen meat and meat products should be frozen when received. You can check the temperature and feel the packaging. If the food is partially or fully thawed, reject the shipment.
In addition, if there are ice crystals in the packaging, reject the shipment. Why? When food is thawed and then refrozen, ice crystals will form. If you notice it when you are receiving food, it likely means that at one point, the food was thawed and has been refrozen. Not only does it affect the quality of the food, but the food could have been at temperatures that allow bacteria to grow before it was refrozen.
4. Check the temperature
As with any other TCS food, you should always check the temperature of your meat and make a record of it. Cold foods should be received at 41°F (5°C) or below. The only exception is for shelled eggs, which can be received at 45°F (7°C.) If you are receiving bacon or other flat foods, it can be more difficult to take the interior temperature. Instead of putting it inside the food, place your thermometer in between two packages to get a reading.
If you receive hot foods, they should be at 135°F (57°C) or higher. You should also immediately put it in hot holding equipment to keep it at or above that temperature.
If you are using time to control bacterial growth (instead of temperature), remember that hot foods may only be left out for four hours after removing it from holding equipment. After that, it should be thrown away.
Also, to keep your food from becoming contaminated, remember to clean and sanitize your thermometer between uses!
5. Check for signs of contamination
Just like with any food you receive, check to make sure it is not contaminated by other things, like chemical or physical contaminants as well as pests. If you notice signs such as gnaw marks in the packaging or droppings from pests or rodents, reject the shipment. In addition, if there are physical contaminants, like broken glass, around the food for any reason, reject the shipment.
Once you have received your meat, use the First In, First Out (FIFO) method when storing it. This reminds you to use the oldest food first if it is still good. You’ll also need to put it on the correct shelf to keep it from being contaminated or contaminating other foods.
For other resources and food safety tips, visit StateFoodSafety.com.
— Janilyn Hutchings
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