It’s longer than you think—but that doesn’t mean you should be eating it.

By Elizabeth Laseter
Updated: December 17, 2018
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Credit: Sally Williams Photography/Getty

Say you’re making meatloaf for an impromptu get-together and you need ground beef. You don’t have time to run to the grocery store, but you remember that there are several pounds stashed in your freezer.

You pull out the ground beef, and realize that you forgot to label and date it. You have no idea how old it is. What do you do? Assume the ground beef is probably fine, or throw it out just to be safe?

Foodborne illness is no joke. And with the most recent ground beef recall—which involved 2.1 million pounds due to salmonella concerns—fresh on our minds, following safe handling practices is more important than ever right now.  

Ideally, you should always label and date any food that you plan to freeze. But if you run across something that doesn’t have a date, you may be surprised to know that this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe to eat.

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What’s far more important is the temperature of your freezer. In order to effectively kill any bacteria, yeast, or mold, your freezer must be set to 0°F or colder. With that said, as long as food is continuously stored at 0°F or colder, it will always be safe to eat.

In fact, the main issue for properly frozen food is freshness and quality. According to the FDA’s freezer storage guidelines, the optimal storage time for frozen ground beef is 3 to 4 months. The same goes for any type of ground meat, including hamburger meat and ground turkey, pork, veal, or chicken.

So, to answer the original question—yes, you technically can cook and eat the ground beef that’s been sitting in your freezer, but that doesn’t mean that you should. Instead, learn the signs that your ground beef may be past its prime so you’ll be able to tell if the flavor and texture have been compromised. According to the USDA’s Freezing and Food Safety guide, three potential signs to look for are freezer burn, color changes, and ice crystals.

With that said, don’t risk serving your dinner guests subpar meatloaf. If you’re worried, toss it out and order pizza instead. But the next time you purchase fresh ground beef, keep in mind that you can safely store it in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days. If you aren’t certain you’ll use it within that time frame, it’s best to go ahead and freeze it.

Ground Beef Freezing Tips

  • Always label ground beef with the date and weight before freezing. Freeze large quantities of ground beef in half-pound or one-pound portions so you can defrost the exact amount you need.
  • Check the temperature of your freezer periodically to ensure that it’s set to 0°F or colder. (If you don’t own a freezer thermometer, you can order one from Amazon.)
  • To prevent freezer burn, wrap the ground beef in wax paper or freezer paper.
  • The safest way to thaw frozen ground beef is in the refrigerator. Never leave it on the countertop to thaw as this exposes it to the danger zone (40°F to 140°F), the temperature range where bacteria can grow. Cook or refreeze the beef within 1 to 2 days.
  • If you lose power, avoid opening the freezer door. Depending on how full your freezer is, frozen food lasts for 1 to 2 days (as long as the door stays closed.)

Lastly, stay up to date on food recalls by subscribing to the Food Safety and Inspection Service's email alerts. For big recalls like the recent ground beef one, get into the habit of double-checking your freezer for the affected food, as this is an easy place to overlook.  

For more information on safe handling practices for raw and frozen ground beef, check out the USDA’s Ground Beef and Food Safety page.

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