Have you ever picked up a package of raw chicken or beef that looked or felt a little—airy? Normally, perishable foods wrapped in plastic from supermarkets are prepared that way to prevent juices from leaking out, which can harbor bacteria before being cooked. So what happens when the food packaging looks bloated?
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service food safety expert Meredith Carothers, who spoke with EatingWell, you have every right to feel concerned by the sight of air-stuffed food packaging.
“Swelling can occur in packaging due to gases formed as a result of spoilage taking place,” Carothers said. That’s because bacterial growth can cause gas formation. If you see a raw food package that looks like someone pumped air into it like a balloon, you should avoid it or discard it.
The same rule holds for canned goods, which can bulge or swell owing to bacteria. In the case of canned goods, that can potentially mean Clostridium botulinum, a bacteria that produces botulism toxin, which can make a person very ill or very dead even in small amounts. (Dents are a bit different. If the dent is minor and hasn’t broken the can’s seal, it’s probably all right.)
Carothers adds that not all inflated food containers are bad. Some manufacturers use modified atmosphere packaging, or MAP, purposely adding gases to extend the shelf life of a product. MAP is why a potato chip bag looks inflated: nitrogen is introduced to keep the chips fresher for longer as well as to help the food avoid damage during transportation. (Once a MAP package has been opened, however, food will degrade at a normal rate.)
And while it may be tempting to fall back on the “smell test” to assess the quality of food, keep in mind that not all bacteria-ridden meats or other goods will give off a bad odor. If the package looks abnormal, toss it.