How To Tell If Ground Turkey Has Gone Bad

Ground turkey is a delicious ingredient and a favorite of those in the know about lean proteins. As a member of the poultry family, however, it can also a high-risk food that is most dangerous to eat when raw or going bad.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spoilage bacteria, or bacteria that appears when meat is on the decline, may not always be harmful. On the other hand, pathogenic bacteria — like Salmonella, E. Coli, Listeria, Campylobacter, and S. aureus — can develop on improperly stored meat and are capable of causing illness and food poisoning, per John Hopkins Medicine

These bacteria don't just affect raw meat, as they can cause harm even when your food is cooked. Staphylococcus aureus, for example, is a bacteria that will die at high temperatures but produces toxins that are heat-resistant (via Texas A&M Agrilife Extension). As such, not following signs that your meat has gone bad is a health risk, even if it's cooked properly. So how does one stay in the safe zone with ground turkey?

Check the expiration date

Any best-before, consume-by, or other date indicated on the meat's packaging is set with quality in mind. Another piece of fine print to keep in mind is the sell-by date. According to Still Tasty, ground turkey is still safe for consumption for a couple of days after the sell-by date has passed, provided that its storage is in optimal refrigerated conditions.

If you're storing your ground turkey in the freezer, you might be wondering, does frozen food ever really expire? Frozen food can last indefinitely as long as it's kept at 0 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the FDA. The downside of this storage method, however, is that the flavor of the ground turkey will deteriorate over time. When water freezes, it expands, which causes food cells to burst and the flavor to escape (via FSR). As a rule of thumb, consume your frozen ground turkey within four months for the best quality.

Check the color

Color on its own is not a foolproof indicator of a meat's health status. Factors like light, packaging, and ventilation play a role in its appearance. As a result, the pleasant color of fresh meat is "short-lived," explains the American Meat Science Association. Be that as it may, color, in concert with other factors affecting meat, is a helpful indicator of where ground turkey is in its lifespan.

Fresh turkey in ground form can range from a very light pink hue to almost white. As it stands in the refrigerator, the color becomes dull even while it's safe to eat. As decay sets in and the meat deteriorates, though, the ground turkey's color starts to deepen. It can take on a variety of colors ranging from gray or yellow to brown, and then eventually may take on a greenish hue, says Today. (If at this point you don't know that green meat means danger, the sight of the bad ground turkey should negate your urge to eat, as it will be accompanied by a miasma.)

Smell for a bad odor

Raw turkey that is fresh and still fit for consumption has almost no smell, while a bad odor is a warning that your meat has expired and is in the danger zone. Nasty smells typically come from chemicals that appear while microbes break down a past-its-prime food, according to Tufts Now.

These smells exist for a reason. While some carnivores may be attracted to the aroma of decaying meat, we humans find it repulsive. Some scientists believe that this is by nature's design, our bodies' means of telegraphing to our brains that a specific food item is no longer fit for our consumption, per ScienceDaily. The smell of decaying ground turkey is unpleasant and powerful, and some liken the sulfuric smell to that of "human flatulence" or rotting eggs.

Even if your ground turkey smells fine, experts advise that some harmful bacteria are odorless. Be sure to use other safety checks (in combination with the sniff test) when deciding whether or not to eat your turkey.

Check for a strange taste

Hopefully, it doesn't get to the point where you have to taste your ground turkey to tell whether or not it has passed its usability date. By noting the packaging dates, color, and smell, you should be able to save yourself from the unpleasant experience of a nasty bite of meat.

Alas, if all of these signs point to safety, you'll instantly be able to tell that something is amiss when you take a bite of bad turkey: It will taste rancid, and there will be no likeness between its flavor and the way fresh turkey tastes. The texture is likely to be slippery, and this is a sure indicator that the meat has reached an unhealthy state. According to Medical News Today, even the smallest amount of bad poultry can make you sick. The symptoms of eating contaminated food can show up between 30 minutes and one week after ingestion in the form of high fever, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and dehydration, according to the CDC. Tasting your questionable ground turkey for safety, then, should be a last resort.