For beef, color is not everything. The same is true for lamb and bison. For cut meat, the prime indicator as to whether the meat has gone bad relies upon another sense – smell.

"Meat color is the first thing consumers look at for freshness," said Karen Blakeslee, Kansas State University Research and Extension food safety specialist. "The color differences are due to changes in the natural color pigments, enzyme activity, and how much oxygen is present."

When the meat changes color, it relates to the amount of oxygen present in the product. The changes occur primarily because of a loss of oxygen. Sometimes the outside of the meat is browner than the inside color.

"Your veins are blue because there is no oxygen. When you get a cut the blood is red," said Chad Bontrager, the owner of Yoder Meat in Yoder. "Blood in animals works the same way."

Yoder puts their freshest cuts out daily. The date on the package is dependent upon when the meat was butchered and the government-stipulated hazard analysis plan.

When the meat is vacuum packed, the oxygen surrounding the meat dramatically stops, causing the meat to turn a purplish color. Once the meat is taken out of the package, it regains some of its reddish hue. Myoglobin is the protein responsible for fresh meat color.

When the product is in the consumer’s home, Blakeslee said there is one simple way to know if brown meat is still safe to cook and eat is to smell it. If it smells fresh, and the "freeze" or "consume by" date is current, then it’s probably okay to cook.

If a product cannot be used by the due date, it should be frozen. If the product smells badly, then it must be thrown away.

"If it looks bad and smells bad, it’s going to be obvious to the consumer," Bontrager said.

According to Bontrager, fresh meat usually lasts about six to seven days. Vacuum-packed meat has a greater shelf-life.

Yoder obtains its all-natural meat from local ranchers in Reno, Sumner, Anderson, Cherokee, Jefferson, McPherson, Harvey and Pottawatomie counties. The company’s processing plants are located in Yoder and Meriden.

Although pork starts out lighter in color, Bontrager said, it usually goes bad slightly quicker. Elk and goat meat are both similar to beef in color and turn at around the same rate. Bison and lamb, Bontrager said, starts out darker than beef.

"We try to keep the meat as fresh as possible," Bontrager said. "Our goal is to give the freshest meat to our customers, so it has a longer time to stay fresh in their home."

K-State Research and Extension has a fact sheet, "Fresh Ground Beef Color: A Consumer Guide," which will help consumers make good decisions about the safety of ground beef.