How Do Grocery Stores Keep Meat Fresh?


Grocery stores order a lot of meat from suppliers. But if they order too much, they have to throw a lot away. Too little and they run out. So when ordering, cutting, and packaging the meat, how do grocery stores keep meat fresh?

I’ve sold tons of meat and poultry over two decades, so here’s what I know:

How do grocery stores keep meat fresh? By only cutting what’s needed for the day, and closely monitoring & logging temperatures. Once cut or ground, the risk of bacteria increases resulting in shorter shelf life. Grocery stores usually keep fresh meat for 10-14 days. However, frozen meat can last for up to 12 months.

But you might also be wondering if grocery store meat is better than that from a butcher? Or how butchers keep meat fresh? Ultimately, how safe is the meat you eat, and what are the standards that grocery stores have to follow?

So just keep reading to get answers to all your doubts. 

How long do grocery stores keep meat?

Grocery stores keep meat up until their use-by date.

This can be 10-14 days, though it depends on the kind of processing. That being said, in many cases, they are stickering the meat in house; especially stores that have butchers on hand who are cutting and grinding the meat on-premises.

In those cases, they are going off of the date codes on the products they ordered from the suppliers. But they also use their eyes and nose as color and scent changes are easy to spot as well.

Ground meat won’t last long as steak as it has a higher risk of contamination. State and local laws determine what happens when they remove meat from the shelves.

If use by date is approaching fast, some grocery stores will put the meat on sale. Roasts or steaks may get turned into ground beef. Other stores may take steaks and chicken breasts that are still in date, but past their prime, and add a sauce or marinade to it.

Some grocery stores toss meat when close to expiring while others refreeze or donate it.

But, you must also be careful about buying short-dated meat on sale if you’re not planning to use it the same day.

In those cases, freezing it the day you buy it works well.

How do butchers keep meat fresh?

Going to a butcher shop can be intimidating.

Their display case is not as appealing as a grocery store. Many people also believe that butcher shops are inferior because they don’t inspect them as rigorously as grocery stores. Surprisingly, butchers often have better quality meat than grocery stores.

Proper meat storage is essential to prevent spoilage, so you might wonder how they keep their meat fresh

Stores take measures to prevent contamination and spoilage of meat by strictly monitoring cooler or freezer temperatures. These are logged not only daily, but many times throughout the day.

They also limit human contact with the meat and offer custom cuts only when a customer requests one. This lowers down the risk of cross-contamination, and meat gets to age longer because the cuts are not all displayed.

Then, of course, they also have specific cutting boards, saws, and grinders for beef, chicken, pork, etc. And if they don’t have separate equipment, then the follow strict washing and sanitizer procedures when switching from one type of meat to another.

Is supermarket meat previously frozen?

Not all. Generally speaking, most grocery stores sell some frozen and some fresh meat.

The nicer and more high-end a store is, the more likely they are to have in-house butchers who cut the meat at the store. This means they will have more fresh meat and less meat that was previously frozen.

The main reason for freezing meat is to maintain freshness while they transport it to the grocery store from the supplier. Besides, frozen meat is easier and safer to deliver as the chances of spoilage and contamination are reduced, especially over long distances.

That’s one of the many reasons to look for stores that buy locally from nearby ranchers.

Before distribution to the grocery store, meat goes through a few important processes. They age it in a cooler for 10 to 14 days, though it can be longer. The longer meat is aged, the better the quality and texture.

And then, of course, aside from fresh vs frozen meat, you also have the USDA grades of beef such as Select, Choice, or Prime.

In this recent article, I examine if prime beef is worth the extra dollars we have to pay. I did a taste test (video included) where I compared 4 different types of ribeyes cooked on my Traeger.

Just click on the link to read it on my site. 

How accurate is the use-by date on meat?

A grocery store will label meat based on their judgment of how long the meat can last.

It’s based on whether the meat was previously frozen. But they also take into account the date the meat arrived in their store, when it was cut or ground, as well as the color and smell.

It’s a combination of art and science, but it’s not foolproof.

Meat is labeled with use-by dates so that customers know how long it will last before going bad or losing some of its quality. This is not to say that meat can’t be contaminated before the use-by date.

With pantry items like cereal, you could probably risk eating it after the use-by date, but don’t try it with fresh meat. One must use fresh meat within two to three days of purchasing.

Only a handful of states require grocery stores to use date labeling on meat. (source)

And Federal laws on date coding don’t exist except for baby formula. (source) Because the law doesn’t make it necessary to label meat with used by dates, it might be a little tricky to choose your meat.

Ultimately, you should only purchase meat from reputable grocery stores that are transparent about their meat handling and policies.

We’ve talked a lot about beef, but what about chicken?

Check out this recent article on which grocery stores have the best chicken. I’ll compare grading, sourcing, and quality from various popular grocery stores.

Just click the link to read it on my website.

What grocery store has the best meat?

It is no secret that many grocery stores use carbon monoxide to keep their meat looking fresh for a very long time. (source)

This won’t affect the actual shelf life or risk of bacteria growth. It only affects the color, keeping that nice red color on steaks and other types of beef.

Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods never uses carbon monoxide or other tricks to fool shoppers.

Their meat is about as pure as you can get. While other grocery stores can claim to have the highest quality meat, Whole Foods Market has kept its standard since the beginning. 

Their 5-Step Animal Welfare program ensures that not only do they know exactly what ranches their meat and poultry come from, but also how the animals are raised and fed from birth to slaughter.

Want to learn more about Whole Foods meat versus other grocery stores?

Check out my recent article on which grocery store has the best steaks. I’ll go into details on beef grades, quality, and even how the You might not know it, but this affects meat quality and flavor. 

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Publix and Kroger

Publix is most famous for fried chicken baked goods and sandwiches. On the other hand, Publix is not very transparent about their meat.

There’s very little information on their website about their meat and poultry standards; mostly fluff and talking points.

And as a consumer, this should be very concerning. Back in 2018, Publix recalled beef from 18 Florida counties due to possible E-coli contamination.

Not that all grocery chains don’t occasionally have issues with things like this. But personally, I prefer to buy meat from stores that are a little more transparent and open about suppliers, standards, and processes.

Kroger is a little more transparent.

Their website states that the simple truth organic brand is 100% grass-fed beef. The USDA certifies it, but it doesn’t speak specifically about how they raise animals despite having an “animal welfare policy”. Meat tastes better when animals are raised humanely. You can eat guilt-free, knowing the whole process was ethical.

Once again, Whole Foods comes out on top.

If you’ve never been to Whole Foods Market, you might question why shopping there is so expensive. Here’s my recent article on why Whole Foods is so costly. I’ll cover everything from pricing to quality and compare them with other top grocers.

Just click on the link to read it on my website.

Did I cover all you wanted to know about how grocery stores keep their meat fresh?

In this article, we covered the standard time for grocery stored to keep the meat.

Besides, frozen and fresh meat are stored differently and discussed them in detail. I talked about the accuracy of use-by dates and compared meat from three top grocers.

You learned how butchers store their meat and the importance of proper storage. USDA certified, Publix, and Kroger are the best stores to buy meat from.

Jeff Campbell

Hi! I'm Jeff Campbell. I was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades. I worked in 9 stores in 4 states, not counting the hundred-plus stores I've assisted in other ways. I was a Global All-Star, a Gold Pen Winner, and won Top-10 Store (company-wide) 3 times in addition to Best New Store (company-wide).

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