You grab a steak or package of ground beef from the back of the fridge. It looks a little brown — but it is still okay to cook for dinner?

The answer is probably “yes.”

The bright red color of meat can be fleeting, especially for cuts stored in the fridge in butcher’s paper, says Ben Chapman, PhD, a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University. “Exposing meat to oxygen is going to change its color over time. It’s like when you cut an apple and it’s exposed to oxygen, it goes from nice white flesh to brown."

He likes to remind consumers that while the red color is natural, it is often preserved by a modified atmosphere, such as shrink-wrapped packaging. "Companies try to reduce the likelihood that meat is going to be exposed to oxygen, so they may surround it with nitrogen to preserve the color. While it’s natural, the retailer or packer tries to stop that oxidation because we don’t like to buy grey meat.”

Related: How to Tell if Chicken is Bad

In other words, the fact that meat has turned brown doesn’t mean it’s bad.

You also can’t tell by how it smells, says Chapman (though if it smells rancid, it probably is). Illness-inducing bacteria, such as salmonella or E. coli, are both tasteless and odorless. (Other bacteria cause spoilage, which may cause a bad odor, but these bacteria won’t make you sick.)

You can’t even tell by the sell-by date. Use-by or sell-by dates are meant mostly to indicate peak quality, not safety, Chapman says.

“The retailer or packer of the meat tags food with these dates to instruct that for the best quality you should use or freeze by these dates,” says Chapman. “But it’s all subjective how you think of quality. What you think tastes funny might not taste funny to me.”

Sell-by dates in particular have to do with visual attributes or color, and they are meant for the retailer, Chapman says. Use-by dates are meant for the consumer as a guide to when you’ll get the best flavor. Meat that’s past the use-by date won’t necessarily make you sick.

“If you push it past those dates, as long as we cook it correctly and don’t cross contaminate, it won’t affect the safety of it,” says Chapman.

Related: 5 Mistakes You’re Making with Chicken and Meat

Cooking the meat to the right internal temperature is the best way to keep you and your family safe.

“The temperature depends on the cut and type of meat,” Chapman says. Steaks, chops and roasts should be cooked to 145 degrees F and allowed to rest for at least three minutes. Ground hamburger should be cooked to a higher temp — 160 degrees F — because the outside of the meat has been ground with the inside, which creates opportunities for contamination.

The bottom line: Your best defense against foodborne illness from red meat is a hot skillet and a meat thermometer.

Related: 10 Common Food Safety Fails


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Chelsea Rice is a freelance health writer living in Boston. She's written for Boston.com, The Boston Globe, HealthLeaders Media and Minority Nurse magazine.