How To Tell If Deli Meat Has Gone Bad

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With inflation driving food prices sky-high across the country, it may be tempting to try to extend the shelf life of everyday groceries past their use-by date; however, when it comes to certain bacteria-prone foods, like cold cuts, knowing the signs of potential spoilage could prevent food-borne illnesses. 

The FDA has classified deli meat as a high-risk food for Listeria contamination. People who eat food contaminated with Listeria — the fifth most common cause of food poisoning, according to Everyday Health – may experience symptoms like fever, headaches, and even seizures, per the CDC. So, making sure your lunch meat is safe to consume is of the utmost importance, particularly for those most vulnerable to bacterial infections, including pregnant people.

Once lunch meat has been opened, it can safely be stored in the refrigerator for 3-5 days or the freezer for 1–2 months, while unopened packages will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or the freezer for up to 2 months. To prolong the shelf life of your deli meat, store the meat in the coldest part of the refrigerator as soon as possible after purchase (via The Kitchn). 

If you're not sure how long your deli meat has been sitting in the fridge, there are a few signs of spoilage you can look for. 

Trust your senses

The first indicator that your pre-packed deli meat may have turned is a notable change in appearance. If the deli meat has taken on a brown, gray, or yellowish hue — or, more obviously, has grown any mold on the packaging or meat — it should be tossed (via Popsugar). If the appearance seems normal, give the meat a sniff. If the meat emits a foul, sour, or simply unusual scent (which can often smell like ammonia or vinegar), your cold cuts have gone bad.

The final test for the freshness of your lunch meat is the feel of the meat itself. According to The Kitchn, meat that has gone bad often develops a slimy film on the surface; so, if you go to build your sandwich and the meat feels different than usual, that's a solid sign that it's no longer safe to consume. As a general rule of thumb, if you have any reason to believe your meat may be past its prime, it's better to be safe than sorry.