All Meat, Fish and Poultry Contain Bacteria
Even fresh meat, fish and poultry contain small amounts of bacteria. Keeping the meat refrigerated or frozen does not kill the bacteria, it only slows down the growth. If the meat is cooked and eaten within a short time, the bacteria will not do any harm. However, if the meat is left at warm temperatures for extended periods of time, the bacteria will grow and multiply, and can cause food poisoning if eaten. Some common types of bacteria that are found in meat include E. coli, Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens.
The Danger Zone
Temperatures between 45 and 140 degrees F are considered to be the bacteria danger zone, in which bacteria multiply quickly. To prevent rapid growth of bacteria, refrigerators should be set at 40 degrees F or below to ensure that the meat is cold enough. Freezers should be set at 0 degrees F.
Guidelines for Safe Meat Handling
Check the use-by date when purchasing meat, and do not buy it if it is expired. When shopping, select meats and other perishable items last, and do not leave them in the car for extended periods of time while running errands. Meat should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours, or one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees. Place meat in the refrigerator or freezer immediately upon returning home.
Thaw frozen meat slowly in the refrigerator, making sure that juices from the raw meat do not drip onto other food. If it needs to be thawed more quickly, place it in a waterproof plastic bag and immerse it in cool water. Meat thawed in the microwave should be cooked immediately. Marinate meat in the refrigerator, not out on the kitchen counter at room temperature.
Length of Time to Safely Store Meat
Refrigerated raw poultry, fish and ground meat should be cooked or frozen within two days, and raw cuts of beef, pork, lamb or veal such as steaks, roasts or chops should be cooked or frozen within 3 to 5 days.
Like raw meat, cooked meat should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours, or one hour if the temperature is over 90 degrees.
Unopened packages of lunchmeat or hot dogs can be kept refrigerated for up to two weeks if they are within their expiration date. Once opened, lunchmeat should be used within 3 to 5 days, and hot dogs within one week.
Fully cooked ham can be stored for two weeks in its sealed and unopened package, but once opened, whole hams should be used within one week, and sliced ham should be used in 3 to 4 days.
Leftovers containing meat should be refrigerated within two hours, and used within four days.
For more information, see the USDA Fact Sheet on Safe Food Handling.