It’s not easy to tell whether a piece of meat is safe to eat when its date labels differ from the guidelines we’re accustomed to.
So this naturally begs the question: how long can unopened raw chicken stay in the fridge?
Well, it turns out that even though the USDA recommends we cook raw chicken within 1-2 days, there’s a sufficient amount of proof that it can actually last longer than this.
This article covers everything you need to know about poultry spoilage including how long you can keep uncooked chicken in the refrigerator.
How long can uncooked chicken actually stay good in the fridge?
Raw poultry can often be contaminated with a number of bacterial microorganisms such as Salmonella and E.Coli.
Therefore, Knowing whether the chicken in your fridge is still good, can be the difference between a pleasant family evening at home and a horrific trip to the ER.
Here’s how long raw chicken can last in the fridge:
When uncooked chicken meat begins to spoil it typically exudes an acrid, sulfuric smell. The best way to minimize the risk of food poisoning is to cook it within 1-2 days.
This timeframe applies to both whole chicken as well as chicken bits such as thighs, breasts, and wings.
Keep in mind that no amount of seasoning will change this timeframe so marinated or seasoned chicken won’t last any longer.
Recipe idea for cooking a whole chicken: Crispy-Skinned Convection Roast Chicken
Anyways, the reason why the federal agency sticks to the shorter timeframe is due to distribution and storage concerns.
When poultry gets transported or stored, there’s always the risk of sudden temperature shifts.
And since some of the bacteria that cause food poisoning are often present during this time, they can take advantage of these conditions and grow in numbers.
Most of these opportunistic bacteria are mesophiles.
Mesophiles are microorganisms that thrive in the 68℉ – 113℉ temperature range.
Some of the most notable examples of mesophilic bacteria include Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E.Coli.
These tiny troublemakers are the reason why we need to cook pot roast to a minimum internal temperature of at least 145°F.
Fortunately, when mesophilic bacteria are kept at temperatures below 40℉, their growth slows down to a halt and they become essentially harmless.
There is, however, another set of bacteria called psychrotrophs, that grow equally well in both cold and warm environments.
As you can probably guess, psychrotrophs are the same bacteria that cause the food in our fridges to spoil.
In essence, they are the very weapon of evolution itself which boldly defies the notion of the “danger zone”.
Maybe read next: How long can eggs stay unrefrigerated?
Why do raw chicken and other meats spoil in the fridge?
Raw chicken, pork, and other types of meat begin to spoil when they get contaminated with psychrotrophic bacteria.
These bacteria mostly come from the feathers and feet of live chicken, but they can occasionally be found in the water supply, chill tanks, or equipment in a processing plant.
In the initial stages of meat handling, psychrotrophic bacteria represent only 10% of all the bacteria that can be found on a chicken carcass.
At this time, Micrococcus bacteria are the most prevalent bacterial genera.
However, as the meat gets chilled and eventually reaches our fridges, the reproduction of the micrococci slows down and gives way to the cold loving psychrotrophs.
As the psychrotrophs begin to expand their colony, they start to gradually exhaust the carbohydrate sources found on the chicken’s skin.
And once the carbohydrates get depleted, they switch over to nitrogenous compounds as a primary source of fuel.
When this happens, the chicken begins to give off a pungent odor which can be best described as a dirty dish rag smell.
With time, this odor becomes more sulphuric in nature due to the accumulation of ammonia on the spoiling chicken meat.
This is followed by changes in the color and texture of the meat, which starts to turn gray-green and develops a slimy coat.
The speed at which the meat spoils will mostly depend on the type of bacteria that has contaminated it.
A study on the spoilage bacteria found on fresh broiler chicken carcasses, found that the most prevalent psychrotrophic bacteria in the USA are Pseudomonas, Acinetobacter and Shewanella species.
When raw chicken gets contaminated with one of these species, it can typically sit for about a week in the fridge before it spoils.
Mind you, this timeframe begins after the meat gets packaged in the processing factory.
This is why unopened chicken has a sell by date that often contradicts the two day rule.
Anyways, here’s what happens on a daily basis when you leave raw chicken in the fridge:
- Day 1: The meat has a pink color and a soft, gentle texture. There aren’t any noticeable smells or odors.
- Day 3: After being refrigerated for 3 to 4 days, the texture of the chicken will have become slightly firm to the touch. There still won’t be any noticeable odors.
- Day 7: Between days 6 and 7, the spoilage bacteria on the raw chicken will have begun to exponentially increase the size of their colony. With each passing day in the fridge, there will be a tenfold increase in their number.
- Day 8 – 10: After having been in the fridge for 8 – 10 days, the meat will have started to exude an acrid, sulphuric smell and may have developed a slimy texture. Color changes could also be observed during this time.
Keep in mind this is an ideal scenario in which you get the chicken right after it’s been packaged.
For a more accurate estimate, you should look at the date when the meat was packaged and start counting from there.
Let’s say the pack date is the 23-rd day of the month but you got the chicken on the 25-th.
This means you’ll have roughly 5 days before your thawed chicken spoils.
Nevertheless, using your senses still remains the best way to tell whether a raw chicken has gone bad.
If you notice any odd smells or off-colors, you should throw out the meat without hesitating.
In summary, you can keep sealed raw chicken in your fridge for 7 days, but only if you’ve bought it on the day it was packaged or if it doesn’t give off any unnatural odors.
How long can raw chicken be stored in the freezer?
If you’re in no hurry to cook your chicken anytime soon, then you can store it in the freezer for later use.
Whole chicken can stay in the freezer for an entire year before it turns foul, while raw chicken pieces can be kept for up to 9 months.
Giblets and ground chicken on the other hand, have a shorter lifespan in the freezer and can last for only about 3 to 4 months.
Regardless of the type of chicken bits you intend to freeze, it’s crucially important to place them in an airtight plastic or glass container.
This will prevent them from getting freezer burn.
Freezer burn strips foods out of their moisture which consequently affects their color and flavor.
It can happen when there are sudden temperature fluctuations or foods aren’t stored properly.
If you’ve ever placed an opened bag of vegetables in the freezer, then you’ve probably noticed there were tiny ice crystals covering them.
These ice crystals are the surface moisture of the vegetables and once they get defrosted, it gets lost.
This then gives the vegetables a dry, chewy texture.
Anyways, if you decide to thaw your chicken, the best way to do it would be in the fridge.
This will keep it safe from bacteria and allow you to refreeze it if you need to.
It’s just like defrosting a pork shoulder for example.
And in case you don’t know how this is done, you can check this post to find out.
How to safely store chicken after opening
There are a few things you can do to safely store chicken in the fridge after removing it from its package.
However, these methods are mostly done to keep the rest of the foods in your fridge bacteria-free.
With that said, here’s how to safely keep raw chicken in the fridge after removing its package:
- Wrap the chicken in saran wrap. The saran wrap will reduce the contact with the air in the fridge and help preserve its moisture. Moveover, it will prevent any runoff that might contaminate other foods.
- Place the meat at the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Placing the chicken at the bottom of your refrigerator will keep it fresh and decrease the risk of cross-contamination.
- Keep the temperature of your fridge above 40℉. Storing poultry and other meats below 40℉ slows down bacterial growth and increases their shelf life.
Following these steps will decrease the chance of food poisoning and give you more time until you decide what you want to do with your bird.
Each year over a million people in the USA get food poisoning from eating raw or undercooked chicken.
By knowing how long you can keep raw chicken in the fridge, you can keep yourself and your family healthy.
If you still aren’t sure whether your chicken is safe for consumption after putting it under the sniff test, then it’s best to toss it out. Especially if it’s after its sell by date.