Days ago, you took a package of chicken out of the freezer and slid it into the fridge to thaw. But life got busy, and the chicken still hasn’t been cooked. You smell it with trepidation and wonder: Is it still safe to eat?

This is one of the most popular questions received by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Meat & Poultry Hotline, according to Tina Hanes, a consumer education specialist in the USDA’s division of food safety and inspection.

You may think a change in smell, texture or color indicates the chicken is no longer safe to eat, but Hanes says that’s not necessarily true.

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“There are two kinds of foodborne bacteria: one that spoils your food and one that makes you sick,” Hanes says. “When food spoils or has spoilage bacteria, people tend to throw it out. It may become slimy or have a sticky white coating on it. But if you were to cook this and then eat it, it would not likely cause a foodborne illness. You may get an upset stomach, but typically a healthy person would not end up in the hospital or with a case of food poisoning.”

Changes in color, smell, taste or texture simply reflect a reduction in the quality of the meat over time, notes Hanes. Unfortunately, we can’t see or smell the harmful bacteria that actually can make us sick, which may be present even when the food is fresh at the grocery store.

“It’s a myth that you can see or smell or taste food safety attributes,” says Ben Chapman, PhD, a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University. “If you open up a package of meat, and if it has an off smell to it, it means that there are spoilage microorganisms that have grown and created some gas in there. Salmonella and E. coli can’t give off those smells, and they don’t change the color or flavor of the meat.”

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Since your senses can’t protect you, what steps can you take? Focus on cooking the chicken to a safe internal temperature. The safe minimum for all poultry — chicken, turkey or duck — whether it’s ground, whole or cooked in pieces, is 165 degrees F, according to the USDA.

Fortunately for forgetful cooks, that raw chicken resting in your fridge for a few days can be put in the freezer, says Hanes. The freezer should be set to 0 degrees F or less. “While bacteria aren’t destroyed in the freezer, they also don’t grow in the freezer,” she explains. “Once thawed, we say you should use meat from a freezer within two days, but you can refreeze meat afterward if you don’t cook it all. As long as you haven’t mishandled it or cross-contaminated, it’s a myth that you can’t do that.”

Still, says Hanes, the old rule applies: “When in doubt, throw in out.”

If you have questions about meat and poultry or food spoilage, call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at

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