How Long Does Deli Meat Last? Shelf Life & Best By Dates

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Sandwiches are an all-time favorite food. Meat, cheese, bread, and toppings are tasty any time of day or year. But how many times have you gone to use some deli meat in your fridge and second-guessed its edibility?

No one wants to eat bad deli meat and get sick. So, do you use the questionable meat or toss it? It’s complicated.

In most cases, it’s best to use the deli meat within five days at most (or up to 14 days for cured meats) to get the best flavor and texture.

Deli meat has a definite shelf life that most grocers and manufacturers will print, but the terms used can be confusing. Different kinds of meat have more preservatives than others, so they’ll last a bit longer.

Deli Meat Shelf Life

Deli meats go by a lot of names: lunch meats, luncheon meats, cold cuts, sandwich meats, and sliced meats.

Of course, there are a lot of varieties when it comes to deli meat types. Here’s the shelf life of some of the most popular choices:

  • Salami – 2 to 3 weeks if opened, 3 to 4 weeks past printed date if unopened
  • Deli Turkey – 3 to 5 days if opened, 5 to 6 days past printed date if unopened
  • Bologna – 1 to 2 weeks if opened, 2 to 3 weeks past printed date if unopened
  • Ham – 3 to 5 days if opened, 5 to 6 days past printed date if unopened
  • Roast Beef – 3 to 5 days if opened, 5 to 6 days past printed date if unopened
  • Pepperoni – 2 to 3 weeks if opened, 3 to 4 weeks past printed date if unopened
  • Prosciutto – 2 to 3 months if opened, 3 to 4 months past printed date if unopened

Related | Pepperoni vs Salami and Old World Pepperoni

The above periods are based on sliced deli meat that you would buy at the deli counter. If you buy prepackaged deli meats, then you can usually add two or three days to the above guide.

Packaged and sealed lunch meats have a longer shelf life because they are more processed and designed to be stored for longer periods of time.

What Does the Deli Meat Sell By Date Mean?

There can be a lot of confusion surrounding the terms that different meat manufacturers and grocers use. Different terms that you’ll probably read are “use by”, “sell by”, and “best by”. Here’s the difference:

  • The “use by” date tells you the day by which you should eat the product. This label is mostly used for quality purposes.
  • “Sell by” date is meant for the retailers and grocers, and tells them the date that they should remove the product from their shelves. This doesn’t mean that you can’t eat the product after the “sell by” date. In fact, there is still roughly one-third of the product’s shelf life left after the “sell by” date.
  • “Best by” is just a suggestion to go by if you want to have the ideal flavor and quality in your food.

That being said, you’ll most often see a “sell by” date for deli meat. That means that it should be sold from the store no later than that date, and the consumer can take it home and still consume it safely for a few days afterward.

As stated in the guide above, you can safely eat deli meat for three to five days past the printed “sell by” date once you’ve opened it, and up to five or six days past the printed “sell by” date if you’ve left it unopened.

How to Tell If Lunch Meat is Bad

The “sell by” date is your best friend when determining whether or not your deli meat has gone bad. If it’s seven days or more past the “sell by” date, it’s safe to assume that your deli meat is starting to turn bad.

The other common sign of bad lunch meat is a slimy and iridescent film on the outside. This slime is usually accompanied by a strange smell. Bad lunch meat won’t smell like fresh meat, instead, it will smell sweet like yeast, or sour like vinegar or ammonia.

If there’s mold or strange growth of any kind on your lunch meat throw it out immediately!

What Happens If You Eat Bad Lunch Meat?

Eating bad deli meats can give you a serious case of food poisoning. That’s because the meat is a great breeding ground for bacteria once it has begun to spoil.

If you eat bad deli meat, you may experience symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and maybe even a fever. Food poisoning symptoms are the result of your body trying to rid itself of the offending food.

Once the food is out of your system, which usually occurs within a couple of days, you should begin to feel better.

How to Store Deli Meat

For starters, deli meat should always be stored in a tightly sealed container.

The fridge is the best place to store deli meat, provided that you’re going to be eating it within three to five days. Keep your tightly sealed lunch meats in the meat drawer of your refrigerator, which will help keep it fresher for longer.

Beyond that, you may choose to freeze your lunch meat.

Can You Freeze Lunch Meat?

Freezing lunch meat is entirely a matter of opinion. If you ask experts in the meat field, they do not recommend freezing, as it can mess with the flavor and texture of the meat. But for others, freezing lunch meat can be a good idea.

When freezing lunch meat, make sure that it’s in an airtight bag. You may also wish to place your deli meat into sandwich size sections separated by wax paper to make thawing small portions easier.

When you thaw lunch meat, make sure to thaw in the fridge and also be wary of extra liquid that will be present. You will have to drain or pat dry the meat before you use it if you don’t want a soggy sandwich.

Can You Freeze Pre-Packaged Lunch Meat?

Yes, pre-packaged lunch meat can be frozen as well. If you want to freeze this kind of lunch meat you can either choose to freeze it whole and unopened in its original package or follow the above instructions for opening it and freezing it in smaller portions.

Either way, you can keep your meat in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Written By Tara Williams

Tara is a food writer that has been editing and authoring articles for KitchenSanity since its founding. Her writing offers personal experience from experimentation with food and recipe creation. If you’re looking for simple tips, she will make your journey in the kitchen straightforward with a dash of fun.