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Fresh Beef: Does Color Matter?

March 10, 2022

Remember your last stroll down the grocery store’s meat aisle, the beef section greeting you with neat rows of cherry-red cuts lining the shelves?

It’s said we humans eat first with our eyes.

As shoppers we’ve been led to believe that fresh meat is cherry-red in color and brown meat is spoiled. 

There’s more to it than that, but first a quick science lesson to answer the question: Why does meat change color?

Myoglobin is a natural pigment fixed in the muscle tissue of meat and is purple-ish in color until it comes into contact with oxygen. Oxygen turns it bright cherry-red in a reaction happening in as little as 15 minutes. Continuous exposure to oxygen will turn that same meat brown after 4 days. 

Called oxidation, this reaction is also what turns a cut apple brown. The color change does not mean the meat is spoiled.

Most grocery stores have moved away from employing a skilled butcher to cut on demand while the shopper waits and instead towards offering “case ready” meat sitting pre-packaged on a shelf for the shopper to grab and go.

Imagine standing in front of the meat case. Are you reaching for the package with the bright cherry-red steak or the brown-ish one?

Grocery stores need their fresh meat to maintain that cherry-red color as long as possible so a shopper buys it it off the shelf.

Using Modified Air Packaging, oxygen is sealed out of case-ready meat. You’ve seen it - meat on a styrofoam tray covered with puffed up plastic that’s sealed at the edges? The same approach is used to puff up bags of potato chips.

Here’s the real problem: spoiled meat can still be cherry-red.

The frozen beef we offer is not cherry red. Here’s why:

On cut day, skilled butchers break down the whole carcass into retail cuts that are immediately bagged, vacuum sealed, labeled and frozen. With limited exposure to air when cut and vacuum packaging to remove and seal out all oxygen, the myoglobin retains a burgundy color.

Freezing in vac-pack suspends oxidation. It’s like hitting the pause button.

Eating a farm raised, vac-pac frozen steak after 6 months in the freezer is just like eating a steak cut fresh yesterday. 

With the seal intact, frozen ground beef stays burgundy-colored as it thaws in the fridge until you cook it. Released from the package it turns cherry-red before turning brown from the heat of cooking.

What’s the best way to tell if beef is spoiled, if not by color?

Use your nose and toss any off-smelling meat

To me, fresh beef has a faint aroma that’s vaguely metallic-y. So if you’re being hit in the face with a strong smell when opening the package that’s a good sign your beef is less than fresh. Spoiled beef may also be slimy or tacky to the touch.

Here are two quality resources if you want to learn more:

The Color of Meat & Poultry - READ

Does Color Change Indicate Spoilage?- READ

Keep in mind: Ground pork, seasoned beef - like our Beef Chorizo - or sausage products feel tacky to the touch as a result from the seasoning or texture from increased fat, so that’s not the best freshness indicator in those products.

Kassi Glassman

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