Think the mystery meat your school served was questionable? Just ask students in Hawkins County, Tenn., about their school lunches. According to ABC affiliate WATE-TV in Knoxville, lunch workers served pork roast to students that was frozen in 2009.
The April 22 incident prompted school director Steve Starnes to order a full food inventory to make sure it never happens again. “We’re not only going to be incorporating the package date, but also the delivery date on our inventory items,” Starnes told WATE-TV.
No students got sick after eating the six-year-old pork, but what that just a fluke? No. Frozen meat will last longer than you think, according to John W. Linville, Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health and Senior Staff Officer with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Length of freezing will only create quality issues, he says.
“There really is no issue with the meat from a food safety point of view, as long as there were no safety issues with the meat at the time of freezing,” Linville tells Yahoo Health.
Pork roast should be consumed within four to 12 months of freezing, but purely for quality and taste reasons. The reason: freezing foods to 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below inhibits the growth of bacteria, yeast and molds, according to guidelines set by the USDA.
Not all perishable foods have the same frozen “shelf life,” though. Salads, for instance, don’t freeze well, according to FoodSafety.gov. Hot dogs and luncheon meats should be consumed within one to two months of hitting the freezer, while a whole chicken or turkey can last up to a year on ice before quality issues start.
All of the guidelines can be difficult to keep straight.
Luckily, the USDA just released FoodKeeper, a new app for iPhone and Android phones, that gives storage advice on over 400 foods and drinks to help you maximize your food storage time and keep food from spoiling.
In the Tennessee case, Linville says he has “no doubt” that the quality of the meat was compromised over five years, but the extent would depend on how well it was packaged. If the pot roast had any chance to thaw or wasn’t cooked to the minimal internal temperature for pork (145 degrees) it could pose health risks because the thawing process reactivates the microbes, allowing them to multiply and potentially cause food-borne illness. However, if that didn’t happen with the school’s pot roast then “mostly, you would be looking at issues of freezer burn,” he says.
Translation: It probably tasted pretty terrible, but as long as it was prepared correctly it didn’t pose a health threat to students.