For some of us, peeling back that layer of cellophane from packaged supermarket chicken comes with a side of crossed fingers. The expiration date can be a week in the future and the chicken can look fresh inside the package, but until you open it up and take a sniff you won’t know for sure whether it’s still good or not. Fresh chicken should smell like nothing at all, so if there’s a slightly off smell, what should you do?
If you’ve purchased a package of chicken for dinner and you bring it home only to discover that it doesn’t smell quite right, the concept of going all the way back to the supermarket only to exchange it and do the whole song and dance over again can be decidedly unpleasant. But on the other hand, spending two days with horrible food poisoning is also pretty unpleasant.
Some good news: If you eat chicken that smells a little bit off, you’re most likely going to be OK. Pathogenic bacteria like salmonella, listeria, and E. coli are your biggest risks with raw chicken, and cooking it to a proper 165 degrees Fahrenheit will render those harmless. What you’re actually smelling is spoilage bacteria (as opposed to pathogenic), which is not harmful when consumed. Even meat that looks and smells perfectly fresh can make you violently ill if it’s been stored improperly or not cooked to the right temperature. So even though it’s counterintuitive, meat that smells a little off can still be perfectly fine; it all comes down to the type of bacteria in it.
Whether you throw out funky-smelling meat or cook it really comes down to the kind of person you are. If you’re the type of person who sniffs questionable leftovers and says “Eh, it’s probably fine,” then you probably know by now that even though the resulting product may be a little off-tasting, it’s probably not going to get you sick. But if you’re in the “better safe than sorry” camp and don’t mind the inconvenience of having to return to the grocery store or toss it and order a pizza, then there’s certainly no harm in erring on the side of caution. Nobody will fault you for staying firmly in the “when in doubt, throw it out” camp, but don’t assume that eating meat that smells a little funky will automatically make you ill.