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How Long Is Deli Meat Good For And How To Tell If It’s Bad? – Can It Go Bad?

Quick Answer

Generally, packaged deli meats such as deli ham or cold cuts can be kept for around two weeks. Once the pack is opened or the meat is sliced at the deli counter you can keep it in the fridge for 3-5 days.

If you would like to keep your deli meats for longer – for example, you’ve bought deli meat in bulk at a discounted price – then it may be worth freezing the meat.

Sandwiches are a lunchtime staple, and deli meats are a classic choice for filling out a sandwich and making it delicious.

But we imagine that there have been a few times when you’ve gone into the fridge to get some deli meat, only to wonder if it’s gone bad. 

So when do deli meats become spoiled and inedible? We have the answer below!

How Long Is Deli Meat Good For And How To Tell If It's Bad - Can It Go Bad

What Does The Sell-By Date Mean On Deli Meat?

Grocers and meat manufacturers use a lot of different terms regarding dates on their products.

The most common terms you’ll see are ‘best by,’ ‘sell by’ and ‘use by.’ But what’s the difference between these terms?

  • Best By: This is more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule. If you see that a product has a ‘best by’ date, it means that you’re not going to get the best flavor and quality beyond this date. 
  • Use By: This date tells you when you should eat the product, and again indicates when the product is going to dip in quality.
  • Sell By: This date is more so for the benefit of grocers and retailers, as it lets them know when they should no longer sell the product. You can still eat the product after the sell by date, and it’s thought that the product still has one-third of its shelf life left beyond the ‘sell by’ date.

Can You Eat Deli Meat After The Best-By Date?

Lunch meat mostly keeps for a day or two past its best by date, and sometimes it may keep for even longer.

If the meat has a high fat content – like salami or pepperoni – then it may last a lot longer than other deli meats. 

Deli meat isn’t exactly known for longevity, and it’s good to be cautious about eating things like chicken cold cuts a day after the use-by date.

How Can You Tell If Deli Meat Has Gone Bad?

Truthfully, it’s quite easy to tell when deli meat has gone bad. Let’s take a look at a few signs that your cold cuts are past their prime.

  • Discoloration: If the cuts are turning brown or gray, that’s a clear sign they’re no longer fit for consumption. Often discoloration starts from the middle and spreads outward.
  • Off, sour, or stale smell: If your sliced chicken no longer smells delicious but rather smells stale or sour, it’s time to get rid of it.
  • Slime: This is the most common sign that deli meat is off, especially if it was low-quality to begin with. Deli meat slime is actually brine seeping out of the meat which then congeals on the surface. Slimy deli meat isn’t going to make you sick necessarily, but it’s definitely not pleasant. Slime can also encourage the growth of microbes. Long story short, it’s best to get rid of it. 
  • Mold: It is thankfully very rare to see moldy deli meat, but if your deli meat does start to grow mold then it’s definitely time to toss it.

It’s also important to pay attention to the storage time. If sliced meat or deli cuts are open for over 4 days, then it’s best to get rid of them. 

Cold cuts may still be safe to eat if you can’t spot any of these spoilage signs, but it is better to be safe than sorry.

How To Store Deli Meat

It’s important your deli meat is always properly wrapped and kept in the fridge. 

If you’re unable to reseal the wrapped slices or the package, then you can put the slices in an airtight container or freezer bag and wrap them up.

When storing deli meat in an airtight container, we recommend wrapping them in aluminum foil, butcher paper, or plastic wrap.

How Long Can You Keep Deli Meat In The Fridge?

How Long Can You Keep Deli Meat In The Fridge

Packaged deli meat has a shelf life of around two weeks and can last for a day or two beyond the printed date. 

However, once you open the package it’s only good for another five days at most.

This also applies to cold cuts you can buy sliced at a deli counter. Still, this is only the case if the meat has been continuously kept in the fridge.

If the meat has been left out on the deli counter for too long, or if it’s a warm day and it took you a while to get your shopping home, then the deli meat might dip in quality. Heat will significantly lower the storage time.

Sometimes, the meat itself can also be low in quality. It might taste fine, but only keep for a day or two before it starts to smell off. 

Can You Store Deli Meat In The Freezer?

Deli meats can be frozen, but some fare better in the freezer than others. Meat that has a higher fat content often freezes better than lead cold cuts like chicken or turkey. 

Before freezing a lot of deli meat, just freeze a couple of slices of your favorite meats as an experiment. You can better gauge the quality of the meat after it’s been defrosted. 

How To Freeze Deli Meat

  • Portion the meat: Slices will freeze together, so it’s important to divide them into portions if you want to defrost them individually. 
  • Put the slices in separate bags: Each type of meat will need its own freezer bag. If you want to keep the slices in the freezer for more than a couple of weeks, wrap each type of meat in aluminum foil or plastic wrap first. This stops freezer burn. Finally, squeeze out the air from the freezer bag and seal it. 
  • Label the bags and freeze them: This is an optional step. 

Your cold cuts should maintain their quality for at least 3 months if double wrapped, and 6 weeks if they’re single-wrapped. 

To thaw deli meat, place the frozen meat on a plate and put it in the fridge the night before you intend to use it. By morning, it should be thawed out and ready to eat.

Can You Leave Deli Meat Out?

If deli meat is left out at room temperature for over 2 hours, or over an hour if the temperature is over 90 °F, it is no longer edible. This applies to most perishable foods. 

However, it’s important to judge this on a case by case basis. If unopened packaged deli meat is left on the kitchen counter in the colder months for around 3 hours.

It’s still considered good to use. But if that same deli meat is left in a sandwich for about 3 hours on a hot day, then it should be thrown out. 

The main thing to remember is that temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F are considered the danger zone for perishable foods.

This is the temperature range where bacteria quickly multiplies. Storing perishable foods at these temperatures for longer than you need to is a bad idea.

Final Thoughts

Deli meat can be a surprisingly durable foodstuff if stored correctly at the right temperatures. However, this will depend on the type of meat (salami will last longer than chicken cold cuts, for example). 

There are a few signs that deli meat has gone bad, and it’s important to be mindful of best-by and use-by dates in particular.

Jess Smith
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