What It Actually Means When Ground Beef Turns Brown

It's such a downer to open the refrigerator, grab a package of ground beef — in an attempt to make taco filling for Taco Tuesday, or whip up mom's famous meatloaf — only to find the ground beef has turned brown. Does that mean you should not cook it up for the family? In an effort to help with the zero waste movement, you probably don't feel like you are contributing in a positive way if you toss it. Not to mention, it's a waste of money. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it's normal for ground beef to go through various color changes while it's on your grocer's shelf — and in your fridge. Even if it's bright red or pink on the outside, the inner portions might look brown or even gray. This is normal, and is the result of a lack of oxygen. This in and of itself doesn't indicate at all that your meat is going bad.

Interestingly, the oxygen has another role with the color of the meat — the oxygen that interacts with the surface of the meat actually lends it its cherry-red flavor. But that doesn't last forever.

Ground beef changing color may not be bad — yet

So, what does it mean if your ground beef has gone from its bright, reddish-pink color to a brownish gray? It's simple really: Once exposed to oxygen, ground beef will turn brown, and that is perfectly normal (via The Takeout). This is similar to what happens to apples, avocadoes, and eggplants when they get a whiff or two of fresh air.

Janeal Wyn Yancey, a meat scientist at the University Of Arkansas, told The Takeout that this is due to a protein in the meat called myoglobin that, when exposed to oxygen, chemically changes its shape, and subsequently changes how light reflects off it.

Phew, good to know. But more importantly, can you still eat it?

How to tell if your ground beef is okay to use

That answer as to whether or not you can eat ground beef that has turned brown is not a straight forward "yes" or "no." It really depends. If it is just a color change, you are probably good to go ahead and cook the ground beef.

However, the first thing you should do is check out the use-by date. If this date hasn't passed, you are probably okay to eat it. What if you are still not sure? Then take a sniff. What does it smell like? If it makes your nose hairs stand up in repulsion, there is a good chance your ground beef needs to be tossed. Also, if it's slimy or the texture is off, that's another good reason to throw it away.

Ultimately, ground beef turning from bright red to brown should not present a problem. Just remember, when you cook your ground beef, do so to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.