Bacteria doesn't grow at very cold temperatures, so properly packaged food in the freezer will stay safe "almost indefinitely," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Freezing doesn't destroy bacteria, though; it only makes them inactive and unable to grow. Once you take meat out of the freezer, bacterial growth will resume, so you should cook the meat within a few days.
How long you can keep meat in the refrigerator depends on the type. Keep raw ground meats, sausage and poultry in the refrigerator for one to two days. Cook raw roasts, steaks, and chops, including pork chops, lamb chops, and veal chops, within three to five days. You can also keep cooked meat in the refrigerator for three or four days. Unopened cooked meat, such as hot dogs and luncheon meat, stays safe for about two weeks in the refrigerator.
Always defrost frozen meat in the refrigerator, a microwave set on defrost or in cold water. The refrigerator is the safest way to defrost frozen meat because it keeps meat colder than the "danger zone" temperature that promotes rapid bacterial growth. Cook meat immediately after thawing if you use cold water or the microwave. Never let meat defrost on the counter, in your car, outdoors, or in hot water. This allows bacteria to multiply, which increases the risk of food poisoning for you and your family.
Freezing meat properly ensures that it doesn't lose quality when you defrost and cook it. Although you can freeze meat in its original packaging, wrap it more heavily if you plan to store it for several months. In addition, use your freezer's quick freeze setting if it has one; freezing meat quickly reduces the formation of ice crystals. Spread out cooked meat in the freezer to help it freeze faster instead of stacking packages on top of each other.
According to the USDA, it is safe to refreeze raw food if it has been defrosted in the refrigerator, and meat is no exception. Meat that has been defrosted in cold water or in a microwave should be cooked before refreezing. Meat that has been left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours should not be refrozen, and that time frame drops to one hour if it has been in temperatures of 90 F or more. Refreezing raw meat may lead to a loss of quality because of moisture that escaped during thawing.
- Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte/Getty Images