Taking the mystery out of ground meat

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Cheryle Jones Syracuse

Family and Consumer Science Staff N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center

A couple weeks ago, I had a discussion with a friend about a package of ground beef she had purchased at a local grocery store. She was concerned about its freshness, because the meat was red on the outside but when she opened the package, it was grayish-brown on the inside. She thought perhaps the meat was old and the store had added something to make it look fresher.

This inspired me to do a little research on ground beef and hamburger. 

According to information found on the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline website, this meat is perfectly safe and there was nothing added to it to make the bright red color. Vacuum-packaged meat will have a darker purplish-red color, but once exposed to oxygen, it will turn from the darker red to a brighter red. Oxygen from the air reacts with pigments in the meat to make the bright red color that is often seen on the surface of meat purchased in the supermarket. 

The inside of her package was grayish-brown due to the lack of oxygen. Be aware, however, that if all the meat in the package has turned gray or brown, if there is an off odor or if it is sticky or tacky to the touch or it is slimy, the meat should not be used.

Here are a couple other tips to think about when purchasing or storing ground meat:

1) A maximum of 30 percent fat is allowed in either hamburger or ground beef. Both hamburger and ground beef can have seasonings added, but the addition of water, phosphates, extenders or binders is prohibited.

2) By definition, ground beef is chopped fresh or frozen beef from the primal cuts and trimmings. If the package says the meat comes from a specific cut of meat, such as ground round, sirloin or chuck, the lean and fat in that package can only come from that cut. 

So ground round can only contain lean and fat from the round, sirloin from the sirloin, etc. If the package is labeled simply as hamburger, it may contain fat trimmings from other than one specific cut of meat. 

3) Be sure to check the label to determine the percent of lean and percent of fat in the ground meat to determine the desired lean content. Just because the ground meat comes from a lean cut of meat originally and it is labeled as such, it does not mean the ground meat is lean. Although it tells you where on the cow the meat and fat came from (ground chuck or ground sirloin), it does not indicate the leanness. 

You may have 90 percent lean and 10 percent fat from a sirloin cut or you many have 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat from a sirloin. It just depends upon how much fat was added. If a package is labeled “lean ground beef,” it must be at least 90 percent meat muscle with 10 percent or less added fat.

4) Base your decision on which ground meat to purchase on several factors, including leanness, price and its intended use. On an average, a 3-ounce broiled serving of beef contains 248 calories if 73 percent lean, 235 calories if 80 percent lean and 213 calories if 85 percent lean.

5) After purchasing, refrigerate or freeze ground meat as soon as possible. Use fresh ground meat within one or two days of purchase. For longer storage, wrap in freezer paper, foil or freezer bags. Ground beef is safe indefinitely if kept frozen, but will lose quality over time. It’s best if used within four months. 

When thawing, the best way is in the refrigerator. Keeping meat cold while it is defrosting is essential to preventing growth of bacteria. Most ground beef will thaw in one day. Cook or refreeze within one to two days.

6) It is risky to eat raw or undercooked ground beef, as it may contain harmful bacteria. The USDA recommends that to be sure all bacteria are destroyed, cook meatloaf, meatballs and hamburgers to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees as measured with a thermometer. 

The very young, very old and those with weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable to illnesses associated with undercooked ground meat.

7) Just because the meat looks or smells good does not mean it is free of bacteria. Bacteria are everywhere in our environment and food of animal origin can harbor bacteria that can make us sick. 

When meat is ground, more of the meat is exposed to the harmful bacteria, which can multiply rapidly between 40-140 degrees. To keep bacterial levels low, store ground beef at 40 degrees or less or freeze. Bacteria are killed by thorough cooking.

8) Ground meat will shrink in both size and weight during cooking. The amount of shrinkage will depend upon its fat and moisture content, the temperature at which the meat is cooked and how long it is cooked. 

Cooking at a moderate temperature will reduce shrinkage and help retain juices and flavors. If the meat had been frozen, you may lose more moisture or juices because the ice crystals in the frozen meat break down the cell membranes, permitting the release of meat juices during cooking. Poking holes in the meat with a thermometer probe should not cause excess juice or moisture loss.

If you’d like more information on the purchasing, storing, cooking or the safety of meat or poultry, contact the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888) MPHotline (674-6854). Food safety specialists are available weekdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Call the Cooperative Extension Brunswick County Center at 253-2610.

Source of information: USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline and Texas Agricultural Extension Service at Texas A&M University.