How to Tell if Turkey is Bad (The Telltale Signs)

November 18, 2022

Greyish discoloration; unpleasant odor or sweet smell; slimy, sticky, or spongy texture – these are the surefire signs that you must throw that pack of turkey meat away. I know it’s heartbreaking to keep your Thanksgiving turkey refrigerated for so long, thinking you have something for the big day. Then, you defrost the meat, and that rotten egg smell greets you. 

I’ve been in this situation too, and I know the feeling is close to harrowing. Even if you think you can still salvage it, you always have that fear of food poisoning and think “am I supposed to continue eating this?” Of course, you can’t eat spoiled raw turkey. But how do you know if it’s actually bad? In this article, I’ll show you how you can tell when turkey is spoiled and is unsalvageable. 

how to tell if turkey is bad

How Do I Recognize Spoiled Turkey?

The problem with raw turkey meat or meat in general is you can’t tell at first glance when it’s spoiled. However, there are some common signs your raw turkey is bad. All you need is the meat and your sense of observation. 

1. Check the Expiration Date

It’s always advisable to check the expiry date as the first parameter of certainty of the freshness of the product. After bringing them home from the store, you should only refrigerate them for one to three days. For ground turkey, they should be consumed within 24 hours or before the third day.

Do you check the expiry dates on packed food at the grocery store? If you feel surprised at the sudden change in texture, color, or smell of your packed turkey meat after a few days of refrigeration, you most likely bought an expired and already bad turkey pack. Also, note that fresh ground turkey meat spoils faster.

If frozen, the shelf life of both whole and ground turkey increases by a few weeks beyond the expiration date as long as it is frozen fresh. In any case, you should always check the freshness after defrosting. 

2. Observe the Color

The color is always the first indication: if the turkey meat is slightly greyish, it’s no longer fit for consumption. Throw it away ASAP!

First of all, packaged turkey is the kind of meat that must actually be consumed immediately. The packagaed date, which is found in meat purchased from large hypermarkets, is not always the same as slaughter or processing date. So the turkey remains fresh only for a short time

So What’s the Color of Fresh Turkey Meat?

In any case, fresh turkey skin has an off-white to cream color. However, the thigh part of fresh raw turkey has a darker color. 

While turkey is mostly white meat, the thigh is red meat. This is because the thigh has active muscle tissues like beef or pork. So, unlike raw chicken, turkey is considered half white and half red meat because of the darker thigh meats. 

But that’s not what we’re here for. The point is that raw meat from turkey thighs will look darker than other parts. That doesn’t mean the turkey is bad because it doesn’t look pinkish!

On the other hand, when you smoke or cook fresh turkey, you may notice the meat has a light pink color. That’s pretty safe. According to the USDA, cooked turkey meat is supposed to look pink.

If that typical light pink color is starting to change a little on your cooked turkey, but it’s not smelly or slimy, this may be stage 1 and salvageable. Just make sure the cooked turkey is well-prepared. Ensure that the internal temperature of the cooked turkey reads at least 145 degrees on your meat thermometer.

Otherwise, if it has already taken on a grayish color, I don’t recommend eating it. It’s probably already spoiled.

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Thanksgiving Turkey Cooling On The Stove

3. Does It Smell Bad or Look Slimy? 

When you get a pungent, sweet smell and the first fungus spores can be seen on the meat, you know for sure that the meat belongs in the garbage. 

If it smells like rotten eggs or sulfur (just like bad ground beef), then your turkey is bad and already infested by bacteria. Don’t think it over!

A lightly sweet or gamey smell also indicates that the meat is no longer fresh, especially if it’s minced. Fresh meat is almost odorless – as soon as that changes, it’s better to be on the safe side and not eat turkey meats that smell sour. 

Generally, all raw turkey has a good or neutral smell: spoiled turkey, on the other hand, gives off a foul odor, almost sour or unpleasant. 

Also, if your raw turkey meat has a sticky or slimy texture when touched, it has certainly gone bad. I classify slimy turkey under stage 3 of meat spoilage. However, the slight sliminess you see on sliced turkey isn’t usually a sign of spoiled raw turkey meat.

Why Does My Ground Turkey Smell So Bad?

Well, the the most likely reason that ground turkey smells bad is that the meat is not good quality. Remember how I mentioned that one of the signs of bad turkey meat is when it smells awful? Have you ever bought ground turkey, or do you have a pack of unexpired ground turkey? It smells kind of disgusting, and you might think it’s expired and bad.

Well, what you have is probably the leftover or junk stuff which most people won’t eat. That’s why ground turkey typically smells bad, like rotten eggs. 

So it’s not always a good idea to buy ground turkey or chicken. Moreover, ground turkey can contain bacteria like salmonella or E. coli. Instead of buying ground turkey, why not buy a whole turkey, cook some of it, and have the rest minced and stored away in the fridge?

What Happens If You Eat Bad Turkey?

Spoiled meat can contain a large number of bacteria and toxins. So, eating bad turkey is a free invitation to food poisoning. In the worst case, you may be exposing yourself to sepsis due to bacterial infection. 

In most cases, eating such food will result in mild sickness. However, for a small part of the population with weak immune defenses, the consequences can be more damning.

The toxins or bacteria can cause drops in blood pressure (septic shocks), major digestive disorders, and possibly neurological disorders.

Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner Plate

How Long Can You Leave Turkey in the Fridge?

You should only keep fresh turkey in the fridge for one to two days, according to the USDA. Refrigerated raw turkey meat must also be consumed before the 5th day. Like pork meat, raw turkey meat spoils faster than other types of meat.  

For packaged turkey meat, note the printed best-before date and never exceed it. 

In principle, pathogens are already present on the meat after slaughter, but in low concentrations without being dangerous. If the meat is not cooked soon enough or stored properly, these germs will multiply, and the meat starts to rot.

If you want to store meat for longer, the only option is to freeze it. If you purchase it as frozen turkey from the store and freeze it immediately after purchase, it can last for several months, depending on the variety.

If you follow these instructions, you can even store up your next delicious thanksgiving turkey as early as September.

What Does Raw Turkey Smell Like?

Fresh turkey meat is almost odorless. Many people perceive the smell of spoiled meat differently. However, as soon as the meat develops an unpleasant odor or the smell changes to sweet or strongly acidic, you should dispose of it. 

Fresh raw turkey does not lose or add up any liquid and is, therefore, dry in the pack. If a lot of juice has escaped or if it looks mushy or wetter, this is a bad sign.

You can also check the texture by simply pressing your finger on it. If the pressure point remains and the meat has a spongy consistency, keep your hands off! Don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly afterward.

The situation is similar with fresh sausage. This meat lasts only one to two days and quickly becomes slimy or sticky. Meanwhile, smoked or dried sausage generally has a longer shelf life. 

What Is the Best Way to Store Raw Turkey Meat?

The best way to store turkey in the fridge is on the glass shelf directly above the vegetable compartment

Throughout the refrigerator’s cabinet, you should be able to get temperature of 40 degrees or less. In any case, you can test the temperature level with a thermometer. 

In the crisper drawer, the humidity is often too high to store meat. 

The meat should be stored as coolly as possible. The refrigerator should be set at a temperature of around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. 

On the other hand, minced meat generally spoils faster because the protective muscle covering is not present. Of course, this also applies to ground turkey. 

Again, I don’t think it’s a good idea to buy or consume commercially sold ground turkey. And if you’ve already bought ground turkey, it should generally not be stored for longer than two to three days, even if the best-before date says otherwise.

I advise that you don’t refrigerate or freeze ground turkey. It is best to prepare ground turkey immediately after purchase. Air exposure can turn ground turkey to a playground for bacteria because of the larger surface area on the meat. The same applies to sliced turkey.

Roasted Turkey with Fruits Pumpkin and Wine

Final Words 

In this article, I’ve shown you in detail how to know if turkey meat has gone bad. You can almost always tell whether a piece or pack of turkey meat has gone bad by observing color. Then, ensure that it’s not smelly or sticky or slimy. If the whole or ground turkey turns greyish, this is a sure sign that you have spoiled meat. Poultry meat should have a light pink skin if possible. However, the flesh of turkey drumsticks is generally slightly darker.

There are rules regarding the storage of white meat such as turkey. Otherwise, the meat can go bad really quick, transmitting bacteria that cause food poisoning every year. 

The main diseases transferrable to those who eat bad turkey meat are Escherichia coli and salmonella. Due to these reasons, it is of utmost importance to recognize spoiled turkey, not just based on a bad smell, but on other features as well.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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