Red vs brown ground beef

I occasionally buy lean ground beef (the not more than 7% fat variety) to make into meatballs, meatloafs, and hamburgers. I buy from a major grocery chain store, if that matters. The outside layer of meat is invariably a bright meaty red. But just a few millimeters beneath the surface, the meat is a much darker reddish brown. What is the cause of this coloration difference? And should I be concerned?

I have several hypothesis. [ol]
[] The meat starts out dark, but after sitting in the package for a while the outside layer reacts naturally with air/light and turns brighter red. [] The meat starts out dark, but the butcher does something to intentionally brighten the outside layer. [] The meat starts out bright, but some natural process darkens the interior. [] The meat starts out as two separate colors, and the butcher performs a nifty grinding trick to put the dark meat on the inside and the light meat on the outside. [/ol] Besides the aesthetics of the color, does it really matter? Does color somehow indicate the freshness or fat contact of the meat? I’m scientifically curious about the source of the dual coloration, but I also want to be sure I’m not being cheated by the store.

Your number one hypothesis is the correct one - probably. See this web page: from the USDA.

There is, however, a fifth possibility ehich you haven’t identified. The butcher may be taking old, un-fresh beef that’s turned, or turning, brown, making a wad of it and packing fresh red beef around it before repackaging it for sale. I believe a major grocery chain was caught by the USDA for doing this a few years back, but I can’t find a citation for it at the moment. Stay tuned . . .

UncaBeer, are you thinking about Food Lion? They got busted a few years back by PrimeTime Live for recycling old meat, but actually sued ABC for the tactics they used to get the story (posing as deli workers and getting jobs there for the express purpose of getting the story) and won.

Columbia Journalism Review Cite



But it isn’t always a scam, just putting their best looking product in the window so to speak. People like to buy the red beef, because it is really fresh.

But here is a little secret ( IANAButcher but my Dad was years ago, and my wife did a stint in the industry) our modern meat packaging relies on vacuum packing meat to preserve its freshness, but meat really needs to ‘age’ exposed to air to reach peak flavor. So there is nothing wrong with the ‘brown’ meat, it is just a little further along the aging curve.

In fact, they sometimes mark the darker steaks down considerably, because people prefer to buy the bright red ones, but if you’ll give them a try, you’ll never go back – better and cheaper, bonus!


Ah, thanks for the links. So the coloring could be completely natural and not a problem, or it could be a perhaps nefarious attempt to sell old meat. Any easy way to distinguish the two cases? Should I just trust in name-brand reliabilty?

The extrusion “strands” change color without breaks, so there’s no obvious wadding or packing of old and new layers. I’ve never a noticed a problem with taste, but I tend to cook with a lot strong spices.

Yeah just like auto mechcanics, judge them on performance. If it tastes good, and the butcher is friendly and willing to do your custom cuts as you need them, keep using them. I tend to like to see a butcher shop with an older butcher on staff who does things the old way – just a personal preference.

The way you put the red meat on ‘top’ is how you feed it (or re-feed it) through the meat grinder. But the color differentiation is probably nothing to worry about, if it tastes good, just enjoy.


I’ll fully agree with buying hung meat. But the logic doesn’t carry across to ground (here it’s ‘minced’) meat. It can be a good cut of meat, but once minced, it needs to be sold. You cannot keep minced meat for days on end.

Where I buy my ground beef, it’s not prepackaged. It’s often ground on request. Sometimes there are 4-5 lbs already ground in the meat case. It’s always bright red. If I put it in the fridge for a couple days before I use it, the outer layer becomes brownish, but it’s still red inside.

I’m pretty sure they grocer is taking older (yet, perfectly fine) and repackaging it in such a way as to get it to sell better.