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Meat Smells Like Vinegar – Why? Safe to Eat?

You’ve just opened up a package of fresh meat or deli meat and can’t help but notice that it smells of vinegar.

Or perhaps you’ve uncovered some leftovers from the refrigerator and it now smells like vinegar.

The smell is from the acetic acid bacteria Acetobacter, the same bacteria in vinegar that makes vinegar smell like vinegar.

Meat Smells Like Vinegar – Why? Safe to Eat?

A vinegar smell is a sign of bacterial growth. The bacteria Acetobacter is used in making vinegar, which gives vinegar its smell. The smell is a waste product made from bacteria.Any meat, no matter what kind, or if it is fresh, cooked or canned, should be thrown out if it smells peculiar, such as smelling of garbage, sour milk or vinegar.

Why Meat Goes Off

Fresh, thawed, or cooked meat does not last longer than five days when stored in the refrigerator.

This is because meat attracts microorganisms like mold or bacteria that cause it to become spoiled.

All flesh contains chemicals like bacteria while an animal is alive. For example, salmonella bacteria live in the intestinal tract.

These microorganisms begin growing soon after an animal is killed and butchered.

Keeping meat cold helps slow down this growth process.

When an animal is butchered, microorganisms like salmonella explode in growth.

The finer the piece of meat, the more the meat is exposed to the air, which also contains microorganisms.

This is why ground or minced meat goes off faster than larger cuts. 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that ground meat can go off in as little as one day, even if it has been kept in the refrigerator.

In contrast, it takes larger cuts of beef, veal, lamb, or pork three to five days before spoiling.

Cooking does kill off some of the microorganisms in fresh meat, but they grow back in a few days because the meat is continuously being broken down by the microorganisms.

Vinegar Used to Preserve Meat

People have tried many methods to keep meat fresher for longer. None of these methods are recommended.

  • Rinsing meat in a diluted bleach solution.
  • Cleaning meat with formaldehyde.
  • Soaking in water or saltwater overnight.
  • Soaking or washing meat in lemon juice.
  • Soaking meat in vinegar.

The vinegar soaking method is still used by some people in the mistaken belief that vinegar kills harmful bacteria.

If you receive meat as a present from someone and the meat smells of vinegar, chances are your friend soaked it in vinegar, or used vinegar in a marinade.

Although vinegar is an excellent food preservative for vegetables and works in keeping condiments like mustard lasting for a long time, it does not work as a preservative for meat.

Scientific American notes that the acidic nature of vinegar breaks down the surface of the meat.

This is why vinegar works so well in marinades.

By breaking down the meat’s surface layer, any other spices or flavors in the marinade are soaked up by the meat.

Do Not Wash Meat

A generation ago, it was thought that raw meat should be washed with water or vinegar in order to remove harmful bacteria.

You would take your whole chicken or steak to the sink and run tap water or pour vinegar on the meat.

Another method was to soak the whole cut of meat in lemon juice, vinegar, or saltwater to clean it.

Washing meat is no longer recommended by the USDA, even though many recipes or even packaging on meat may still include it in their cooking directions. This is because:

  • Washing or soaking does not work to kill off harmful bacteria.
  • Washing only produces water, lemon juice or vinegar that now contains harmful bacteria. This splashes around your sink and anything nearby, contaminating them.

The USDA also notes that washing meat may have been useful when people slaughtered their own animals for food, but it’s not necessary today because modern slaughterhouses do all of that before the food goes to stores or butcher shops.

Safely Preserving Meat

Before refrigeration came along, salt was the most effective way to preserve meat.

Meat would be entirely covered by large hunks of salt called corns.

A long time ago, all grains were called corns, and large hunks of salt resembled grains.

This is how corned beef got its name.

The safest way to preserve meat is by cold. Refrigeration only keeps meat safe to eat for a few days.

Large chunks will be safe for up to five days, while ground meat is only safe for a day or two.

Freezing meat preserves it for a long time. Most meat will store well for up to two months in the freezer.

After that, they can be damaged by the cold through freezer burn.

Meats that last the longest in the freezer are large cuts of beef like roasts or thick steaks and whole chickens.

They can last up to a year.

How to Tell if Meat is Bad

Meat can go off even before the expiration date on their packaging.

This is why it’s important to inspect meat, even cooked meat, before eating it. You need to look, smell and touch.

  • Look to see that meat is a normal color.
  • Smell the meat. Fresh meat has a mild odor, unless it has been marinaded. Anything peculiar, such as smelling of vinegar, is a bad sign.
  • Touch the meat. It should not feel tacky.

Frequently Asked Questions About Meat Smells Like Vinegar – Why? Safe to Eat?

Can Washing Raw Meat Make It Safe to Eat?

According to the CDC, you should never wash raw meat in water in your sink. This does not remove any harmful bacteria. The water touching the meat becomes contaminated and gets all over your sink and anything else that the water drips on.

Why Does My Meat Smell Like Bleach?

Some butchers will preserve meat by rinsing it in bleach. This is usually a sign that the meat is too old to be safe to eat. It’s also a sign that you need a new butcher.

Is Chlorinated Chicken Safe to Eat?

In America, fresh poultry is given a heavily diluted chlorine rinse to kill dangerous bacteria. This process is considered safe by government health agencies. Still, your fresh poultry should never smell like vinegar.


The Least You Need to Know

Trash any raw, canned, or cooked meat that smells like vinegar or has any peculiar smell.

Fresh meat straight from the package has very little smell and should never smell like vinegar.

Meat can spoil before the sell-by date on the packaging.

The smell is caused by the same bacteria that gives vinegar its distinctive odor.