What to Look For When Buying Meat

Heading to the market to purchase meat? Before putting anything into your cart, you should always examine it to ensure that it is safe to eat. Here’s what you should be looking for.

Info Found on the Label

Every package of meat specifies the type (like beef or pork), the wholesale cut and the cut name (like eye of round steak). You’ll also find the weight, price per pound, total price, sell-by date and safe handling instructions. All meat should be purchased before the sell-by date. Some packages may also include the nutrition info, preparation info and the country of origin.

There are two stamps found on packages of meat that you may have noticed. Since the early 1900s the USDA has mandated that all meat get inspected. The inspection stamp means that the animal is fit for human consumption. Every package of meat and poultry will have an inspection stamp on it. As for grading, this tells us the quality or palatability of the meat. This stamp is voluntary and paid for by the food companies, but most meat packages will have it.

Use Your Senses

When purchasing meat and poultry, it’s important to use your senses of touch, smell and sight. Always make sure the meat is firm to the touch, and check that they packaging doesn’t have any tears, holes or excessive amounts of liquid. It should also be cold to the touch and have no odor. Here are more specific details for meat and poultry.

fresh raw meat on old wooden cutting board

fresh raw meat on wooden cutting board

fresh raw meat on old wooden cutting board

fresh raw meat on old wooden cutting board


Pork should have a pinkish-red color, while any fat should be white in color, with no dark spots. Avoid choosing meat that is pale in color.

Fresh steak ready for the grill.


Fresh steak ready for the grill.

Photo by: Robert Linton/iStock

Robert Linton/iStock

Fresh steak ready for the grill.


Beef should be bright cherry color. If the beef is in a sealed bag, the color is typically a darker purplish-red. Once exposed to air, it will turn a bright red.

The info on the package for ground meat is a bit different than that for whole pieces of meat. It is expressed as a percent lean to percent fat. For example, you’ll see “80% lean 20% fat.”

Raw fresh lamb ribs on wooden cutting board on dark background

Raw fresh lamb ribs on wooden cutting board on dark background

Raw fresh lamb ribs on wooden cutting board on dark background

Photo by: Lisovskaya Natalia ©(c) Lisovskaya Natalia

Lisovskaya Natalia, (c) Lisovskaya Natalia

Raw fresh lamb ribs on wooden cutting board on dark background


Lamb should be a soft pink to red color, and any fat or marbling should be white.

Chicken breast


Chicken breast

Photo by: YelenaYemchuk


Chicken breast


Whether you’re choosing packaged chicken or turkey, it should look pink and not gray. Avoid poultry with any purple or green discoloration around the neck, and dark wing tips. Red wing tips, however, are OK.

Other Helpful Tips

Oftentimes the manager’s special for meat and poultry means the sell-by date is near. It’s safe to purchase the meat and poultry as long as you cook it that evening for dinner. It’s a great way to save a few dollars.

When shopping, choose meats and poultry after shopping for nonperishables. Ask to have the meat and poultry bagged separately from other groceries to help avoid cross-contamination. After purchasing your meat, make as few stops as possible, and once you get home promptly refrigerate or freeze the meat.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

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