5 Food Safety Tips and Red Flags

How many times have you asked yourself, ‘is this food okay to serve?’ These 5 simple tips highlight the most common red flags to be aware of as it relates to food safety.

Some food safety tips seem obvious and commonplace, but can still be overlooked by someone in a hurry or without the proper training. Remembering every food safety tip and guideline can feel confusing and overwhelming. With all of the appropriate temperature zones, color-coordinated kitchen utensils to limit cross-contamination, etc., it can be hard to feel like you have a grasp on the do’s and don’ts.

When you choose the right tools to help keep track of food safety compliance, it becomes effortless. In the meantime, here are 5 big food safety red flags that can indicate signs of food spoilage and bacteria:

  1. Broken packaging on any meat or poultry products
  2. Food that has been left out of refrigeration for a prolonged period of time
  3. Food with a sell or use-by date that has passed
  4. Discolored spots on meat, poultry, or produce
  5. Abnormal odors
Broken Food Packaging

Ensure that any food you purchase or accept from delivery is intact before use. This means any food items with a broken seal, questionable safety lid buttons, or ripped or damaged packaging are not acceptable to use.

When food packaging is compromised in any way, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria, especially as food travels from its origin to its destination.

Beyond visibly broken seals, make sure that no canned goods are misshapen or bulging in any area. This is a sign that the food has been exposed to air, another way food bacteria makes its way into food.

If there is any uncertainty about the integrity of a product’s packaging, compare the packaging to another package of the same product, and look for visible differences.

Unrefrigerated Food

As discussed in our last blog post “What is Food Safety?: The 4 principles you need to know”, cooking food at the appropriate temperatures is one of the most important food safety rules. (Using a tool like bluetooth pyrometers is the most sure-fire way to cook food to a safe temperature – stay tuned for a post on this topic more in the coming weeks).

The same caution around food safety temperatures needs to be taken even before the cooking process begins. Proper refrigeration is where food safety starts – if an item is stored at too high a temperature, any food safety steps taken after won’t help much, as the contamination has likely already occurred.

Never accept or cook any food that has been stored out of the refrigeration guidelines below.

FoodIf refrigerated at 40ºF or below
Salad3 to 4 days
Hamburger and other ground meats1 to 2 days
Fresh beef, veal, lamb, and pork3 to 5 days
Fresh poultry1 to 2 days
Eggs (raw, in shell)3 to 5 weeks

Visit Foodsafety.gov for the full list of refrigeration guidelines

Use or Sell-By Date

Although use and sell-by dates are used to indicate food quality rather than food safety, if you are planning to consume or serve food, it’s best to follow these timelines. So although you may technically be safe eating food that has passed its Sell-By date, know that this may put you at a higher risk for contamination.

Let’s break down the different food timeline guidance you might see on food packaging:

  • “Sell-by”: This date does not pertain to food safety. It is an indication that lets the retailer know when this product should be pulled from inventory.
  • “Use-by”: This label mostly applies to more perishable foods, and should really be used by the date posted on the label.
Discoloration of food

Although it can be an easy indicator, it’s important to note that discoloration of food alone does not indicate spoilage. The color of certain meats can be affected by the animal’s diet, species, and activity levels. The exception to this is when discoloration is caused by mold or yeast growth, which are more obvious to identify but still important to look out for, especially on produce.

The most common color changes seen when food has become spoiled is a fading or darkening of the meat’s original color. Again, this alone does not indicate spoilage. However, when discoloration is paired with an off odor or has a sticky texture that feels different, it’s best to avoid cooking and serving that food.

Abnormal Odor

According to Tufts Now, “When food goes bad and starts to become pungent, it is most often due to the growth of spoilage microbes such as bacteria, yeasts, and mold. Odors can come from two sources: chemicals that are released from food as the microbes decompose it, or chemicals produced directly by the microbes themselves.”

So if a food product, especially meat, smells, or looks different than expected, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. This is especially true when serving food – it’s best to take the safe and more conservative side than potentially cause an outbreak of foodborne illness at your establishment.