Is It Safe to Eat Gray Ground Beef?

What does it mean when ground beef turns gray? It depends on a few factors.

package of ground beef with half gray meat
Photo: aluxum / Getty Images

Keep your refrigerator stocked with ground beef, and you can make meatballs, tacos, casseroles, and other convenient meals without having to venture to the grocery store. Yet, opening the fridge to find that your ground beef has turned gray can totally derail your dinner plans if you assume it's gone bad.

Don't toss gray ground beef right away, though. It may actually be safe to eat. Learn when you should and shouldn't eat discolored ground beef, plus other signs of spoilage to look for.

Why Does Ground Beef Turn Gray?

Fresh meat appears somewhat purple when you cut it. In fact, meat only turns red when a pigment within it called oxymyoglobin is exposed to oxygen, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). So, while the outer layer of ground beef may be red (as you would expect), a gray or brown interior tells you that this part of the meat simply hasn't had access to oxygen.

Is Gray Ground Beef Safe to Eat?

Where does the ground beef look gray? If only the interior is gray, you can bet that oxygen hasn't touched it to turn it red. This means ground beef with a gray interior is safe to eat.

On the other hand, meat that looks gray or brown all over (on the inside as well as the top layer) has likely begun to spoil and is not safe to eat.

How to Tell if Ground Beef Is Bad

In addition to a gray hue, smell and texture can also help you figure out when ground beef is no longer good.


Fresh ground beef should feel firm and break apart easily when you apply pressure to it. When its texture becomes slimy or sticky, you're probably dealing with spoilage bacteria, according to the USDA.


Fresh ground beef has only a mild smell or no smell at all. In other words, you shouldn't notice an odor when you remove it from the package. Ground beef that's spoiling, however, will smell noticeably off. A sour or sulfuric odor tells you ground beef has gone rancid and is not safe to eat.

What Happens When You Eat Bad Ground Beef?

During ground meat's processing, equipment and workers can contaminate it with disease-causing bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. Ground beef contaminated with these pathogenic bacteria doesn't look any different from fresh ground beef. Spoilage bacteria, on the other hand, cause ground meat to develop discoloration, slime, and a stench.

Whether the result of spoilage or disease-causing bacteria, bad ground beef can give you food poisoning. Food poisoning symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.


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