Ground Beef Safety Tips

Raw ground beef

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When choosing a package of ground beef, find one that feels cold and shows no signs of leakage. Enclose it in a plastic bag so that any juices that do leak out won't contaminate other items in your grocery cart.

Ground beef should be one of the last items to go into your cart and should be kept separate from other foods, and when you check out, the clerk should pack raw meat, poultry, and fish in separate bags, not together with your other items.

You should drive straight home from the store after shopping. If your drive is long, bring a cooler with ice and pack your perishables in it for the drive home.

How should raw ground beef be stored at home?

Refrigerate or freeze ground beef as soon as possible after purchase. This preserves freshness and slows the growth of bacteria. Make sure your refrigerator is at 40 F or colder, and use refrigerated ground beef within 2 days.

For storing in the freezer for longer periods, wrap ground beef securely in heavy-duty plastic wrap or foil. Assuming your freezer is at 0 F, ground beef stored this way should be fine for a couple of months. Make sure you mark the packages with the date you froze them so you don't forget how long they've been in there.

What is the best way to thaw ground beef?

Thaw frozen ground beef by leaving in the refrigerator overnight. Take the package you created in the step described above and place it a shallow pan, then set the pan on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator, so that any juices won't drip onto other food.

Keeping meat cold while it is defrosting is essential to prevent the growth of bacteria. Once it thaws, cook it within 1 or 2 days, but don't refreeze it. Never thaw ground beef in the microwave or by leaving it out at room temperature. While thawing under cold running water is acceptable for most frozen foods, doing so with ground beef isn't recommended.​

Never leave ground beef or any perishable food out at room temperature for more than 1 hour.

Is it dangerous to eat raw or undercooked ground beef?

Since raw and undercooked meat can harbor dangerous bacteria, the USDA discourages eating or tasting any raw or undercooked ground beef. Meatloaf, meatballs, casseroles, and hamburgers should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 F as measured with an instant-read thermometer.

Are microwaved hamburgers safe?

Yes, provided they're handled and cooked properly. If you cook hamburgers in the microwave, covering them helps distribute the heat more evenly. Flip each patty midway through cooking, and rotate it, too, if your microwave doesn't have a revolving carousel. Let cooked patties stand in the microwave for a minute or two after the timer goes off, then use an instant-read thermometer to make sure their internal temperature is at least 160 F.

Is it safe to cook ground beef part way, then store it to use later?

No; partial cooking of food won't kill pathogens but instead allows them to multiply to the point that they can't be killed by subsequent cooking.

Can I refrigerate or freeze leftover cooked hamburgers? How should they be reheated?

If properly cooked ground beef is refrigerated within 1 hour of cooking, it can be safely refrigerated for about 3 days. If frozen, it should keep its quality for a couple of months — assuming your freezer is at 0 F.

What kind of bacteria are there in ground beef? Are they dangerous?

Any food of animal origin can harbor bacteria. Pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, can make you ill.​

It's important to note that the presence of these harmful bacteria are not related to spoilage. Meat contaminated by these pathogens can look and smell perfectly fresh. Spoilage bacteria, on the other hand — the ones that cause food to develop bad odors and so on — are generally not harmful.

Ground beef safety standards are especially stringent because ground meats have more exposed surface area, which gives bacteria more opportunities to contaminate the meat. Bacteria multiply quickly in the Food Temperature Danger Zone — between 40 F and 140 F.

To prevent bacterial growth, keep ground beef at 40 F or colder, and use it or freeze it within 2 days. Ground beef should always be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 F to make sure that harmful bacteria are killed.

Why is the presence of E. coli in ground beef a problem?

E. coli, including E. coli O157: H7, a strain that produces toxins in the intestine, can infect animals and contaminate muscle meat at slaughter.

This pathogen survives refrigerator and freezer temperatures and can multiply slowly at temperatures as low as 44 F. A small number of these bacteria is all it takes to cause serious illness or death, especially in children. Thorough cooking kills the bacteria, which is why the consumption of undercooked ground beef is such a concern.

Are "hamburger" and "ground beef" the same thing?

No; according to USDA regulations, products labeled "hamburger" may have beef fat added to it, but products labeled "ground beef" may not. In either case, the product can have no more than 30% fat by weight. Both can have seasonings added, but additional water, phosphates, extenders or binders may not be used.

What's the difference between inspection and grading?

Inspection is mandatory for all meat sold in the United States and is intended to ensure the wholesomeness of the product — that the animal wasn't sick and that the meat is clean and fit for human consumption. It makes no determination with respect to quality or tenderness, however.

Meat that has been federally inspected and passed for wholesomeness is stamped with a round purple mark. Since the mark is put on carcasses and major cuts, it might not appear on retail cuts such as roasts and steaks.

Grading, on the other hand, is a system for evaluating the quality and is entirely voluntary on the part of meat producers. While the cost of meat inspection is borne by the taxpayers, the meat companies themselves must pay for Federal inspectors to certify the quality of their products.

Beef grades commonly sold to the public or served in foodservice include USDA PrimeChoice, and ​Select, with a shield-shaped stamp used to indicate the assigned grading. Most ground beef is not graded.

What does the "Sell-By" date printed on the package mean?

"Sell-By" dates are a guide for retailers and are only meaningful if the meat has been properly handled. The USDA suggests cooking or freezing ground beef within 2 days of bringing it home.