How Can You Tell If Chicken Has Gone Bad?

I hope you're sitting down for the shock of this news: My husband and I had another food-related quarrel. He was about to make panang curry and had pulled out the chicken breast. Its expiration date was the same date we were planning to eat it, so obviously, my hackles went up. I smelled the chicken and thought it smelled weird. He though it smelled fine. I said I wouldn't eat it, and I would rather that our children didn't either. We wound up ordering curry from a restaurant.

Still, the incident bugged me: Which one of us was right? I've explored the edibility of brown ground beef (probably fine), moldy cheese (just cut the green part out), and moldy bread (nope, it all has to go). But what about chicken? When does it go bad? Sometimes it's hard to tell, especially the more-expensive farmer's market chicken, which tend to be both stronger in flavor and aroma. So I contacted a few poultry experts.

Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate at the Penn State Department Of Food Science, thought I was definitely onto something by checking the expiration date. "Generally we say when it gets to the best-by date, it is time to act—cook or freeze. Beyond that, then you are trying to negotiate with using sub-quality food." You can identify chicken that's gone south if "it is sticky or slimy to the touch, or a slight sour smell—then you missed the boat." One point for me.

But John A. Marcy, professor and poultry processing specialist at the Center Of Excellence For Poultry Science, University Of Arkansas System Division Of Agriculture, explains that the slight sour smell "is caused by spoilage bacteria that grow at refrigeration temperatures, but they are not salmonella or other bacteria that cause illness, pathogens." So one point for my husband, because Marcy says if a person cooks chicken to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, it should be safe.

Like Bucknavage, Marcy relies on touch as well as smell to gauge the freshness of chicken—maybe even more so. He explains, "The smell... can be somewhat floral because the primary spoilage bacteria breaks down fat instead," but "If it feels slimy, you may want to discard it, because it will probably not taste good."

Yet another expert, Tim Super, senior vice president of communications at the National Chicken Council, points to this helpful chart at that suggests storage times for the refrigerator and freezer. Of the food items listed, chicken is the one with the shortest shelf life. While red meat, for example, can last in your fridge for three to seven days, poultry is only good for one or two. So maybe it's that date we should have been looking at—how long the chicken had been in our fridge—rather than the date on the package.

Because I didn't even touch the chicken—personally, I think raw chicken is rather slimy to begin with, but imagine chicken that has turned is considerably more so—I suspect my husband might have been right. The chicken smelled a bit off to me, but not so much that I was immediately ready to chuck it into the garbage, even though that's where it ended up.

And that may have been a different kind of error, says Bucknavage: "We waste so much food in this country. Of course people think best-by-dates are too conservative and then we get to the point where we are trying to figure out if it is still good or not. It should have never got to that point."

We were debating chicken that ideally never should have been debated; if we were better at meal organization, we would have already cooked the chicken before its expiration date. "Our focus should be on eating food at its prime," he continues. We should be planning our meals weekly—believe me, we try!—and then using the perishable food within a few days, eliminating the is-it-expired problem. Bucknavage offered yet another factor to consider: "You can always think of that poor creature that gave its life only to rot in your refrigerator."

Hopefully our next chicken-based dinner will be cooked well before we get into smell debates. But for this disagreement, I think I have to tell my husband that he was right in this case. Hope he's sitting down when I tell him.