What does ham look like when it goes bad?

Ham is a type of cured and processed meat that is quite popular for sandwiches, charcuterie boards, and as a standalone protein. When properly stored, ham can last 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator or 3-4 months in the freezer. However, ham will eventually go bad if not consumed in time. There are several clear signs that indicate spoiled ham, which we will cover in this article. Knowing how to identify bad ham can help you avoid foodborne illnesses.

What is Ham?

Ham refers to meat from the hind legs of pigs that has been cured, smoked, or both. Curing involves treating the raw meat with salt, nitrates, and/or sugar to help preserve it and enhance its flavor. The curing process draws out moisture, which makes it difficult for bacteria to thrive. Smoking ham imparts flavor while also helping to extend its shelf life.

There are several varieties of ham, including:

– Fresh ham: Uncured and uncooked pork leg. Must be refrigerated and cooked before eating.

– Country ham: Dry-cured with salt and sometimes also smoked. Requires lengthy curing time.

– City ham: Mildly cured with nitrites and lower salt content than country ham. Includes spiral sliced deli ham.

– Honey-baked ham: Injected with sweet glaze and baked.

How Long Does Ham Last?

How quickly ham goes bad depends largely on the curing and preparation method. Here are some general guidelines for ham storage times:

– Fresh ham (raw): 1-2 days in the fridge, 3-4 months in the freezer

– Cooked ham: 3-5 days in the fridge, 1-2 months in the freezer

– Canned ham (unopened): 2-5 years in the pantry

– Dry cured country ham: 1-2 months at room temperature, 3-4 months in fridge (once cut)

– Lunchmeat ham: 7 days in the fridge, 1-2 months in the freezer

– Spiral sliced deli ham: 3-7 days in the fridge, 1-2 months in the freezer

Ham lasts longer if stored properly in the fridge or freezer. Make sure to wrap ham well and place it on the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. Frozen ham should be wrapped airtight with freezer-safe materials like aluminum foil or freezer bags.

How to Tell If Ham Has Gone Bad

There are several clear signs that indicate your ham has spoiled and is no longer safe to eat. Here’s what to look for:

Unpleasant Smell

Fresh ham has a mild, meaty smell. Bad ham gives off an unpleasant, sour odor caused by bacteria growing on the meat. This spoiled smell is very distinct and will likely be noticeable as soon as you open the packaging.


Slimy texture or residue on sliced ham is a major red flag. As ham starts to go bad, the proteins break down and can become sticky or slippery to the touch. Sliminess is often accompanied by an off smell.

Mold Growth

You may notice fuzzy mold growing on the surface of bad ham. Mold often starts out white at first but can develop into green, black, or other colors. While some mold is harmless, other types produce mycotoxins that can cause illness. It’s best to discard molded ham.


Fresh sliced ham is light pink and uniform in color. As ham starts going bad, the color changes to gray, greenish, or yellowish. This discoloration is caused by bacteria growth as the meat spoils. Cooked ham may also turn darker and drier looking.

Dry, Sticky Texture

In addition to smell and appearance, the texture of ham can indicate spoilage. Bad ham feels tacky, dry or sticky to the touch. The meat may also be excessively hard and stiff.

Health Risks of Eating Bad Ham

Eating spoiled ham puts you at risk for food poisoning. The harmful bacteria that cause ham to go bad can lead to serious illness if ingested. Potential health effects include:


Salmonella infection causes diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and cramps. It usually resolves in 4-7 days but can be dangerous for those with weakened immune systems.


Listeria bacteria can lead to a serious condition called listeriosis. Symptoms include fever, stiff neck, confusion, and convulsions in severe cases. It primarily affects pregnant women, newborns, elderly and those with compromised immunity.

E. Coli

Some types of E. coli from contaminated ham produce a toxin that causes severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. They typically clear up within 5-10 days but can be life-threatening in some cases.

Staphylococcus Aureus

Staph bacteria are another source of food poisoning from ham. They can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that starts fairly quickly after eating contaminated meat.

Even if you don’t get noticeably sick, foodborne pathogens can still take a toll on your body long-term. It’s better to be safe and discard meat at the first signs of spoilage.

How to Store Ham Properly

To get the longest shelf life out of your ham and reduce food waste, follow these storage guidelines:

– Keep ham refrigerated at 40°F (4°C) or below. The coldest section is at the back rather than in the door.

– Cooked ham lasts 3-5 days, deli ham 5-7 days. Use fresh ham within 1-2 days.

– Freeze ham if you won’t use it within recommended time frame. Freeze in original packaging up to 2 months.

– For longer freezer storage, rewrap ham in plastic wrap or foil and place in air-tight freezer bag.

– Don’t go by expiration or use-by dates alone. Check the smell and appearance of ham, even if the date hasn’t passed.

– Store ham on a plate or in a container to catch any juices and prevent cross-contamination.

– When thawing frozen ham, do it in the fridge, not at room temperature.

– Don’t refreeze ham once it has fully thawed.

What To Do With Bad Ham

If you discover that your ham has gone bad, follow these steps:

– Throw it out immediately in a sealed bag so animals can’t get into it. Place in an outdoor garbage bin if possible.

– Remove any ham touching the spoiled portion, even if it looks fine. Bacteria can spread.

– Clean the area or container that held the bad ham using hot, soapy water. Disinfect with a sanitizing spray.

– Wash your hands thoroughly after handling spoiled ham raw meat to avoid transferring bacteria.

– If the bad ham was consumed, monitor for food poisoning symptoms. Call your doctor if you have concerns.

Discarding spoiled food can feel wasteful, but it protects you and your family from potential illness. When in doubt, remember it’s better to be safe than sorry.

How To Prevent Ham From Going Bad

You can take several precautions to help your ham last longer and avoid premature spoilage:

– Check the expiration or use-by date when purchasing ham. Pick packages with the furthest dates.

– Inspect ham packaging for holes or tears. Avoid leaking packages.

– Look for signs of spoilage like off odors, slimy texture, or unnatural colors before buying.

– Store ham properly as soon as you get home – don’t leave it in a hot car! Refrigerate raw ham right away.

– Wrap ham well in plastic wrap, foil, or parchment paper before freezing. Remove as much air as possible.

– Avoid introducing bacteria by washing hands before handling ham. Keep other foods away.

– Cook ham thoroughly to the USDA-recommended safe internal temperature, even if pre-cooked. Reheat sliced ham to steaming hot.

– Refrigerate cooked ham within 2 hours – don’t leave it at room temperature. Use within 3-5 days.

– Discard ham if there is any doubt about its safety or freshness. Don’t taste questionable ham!

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you tell if deli ham is bad?

Deli ham goes bad when it takes on an unpleasant sour, ammonia-like or “off” smell, becomes slimy, or shows mold growth. The color may also become greyish. Follow safe storage times – use sliced deli ham within 5-7 days. Discard sooner if it smells or looks off.

Can you eat ham after the sell by date?

It’s not recommended to eat ham past its sell by date, as it’s based on food safety. The date is an estimate for peak quality, but ham could spoil before or after depending on storage conditions. Inspect ham closely and rely on your senses, not just the date.

Is brown ham bad?

Not necessarily. Some natural color variation is normal with cured, cooked ham. However, ham that looks brownish-grey, dull, or unnaturally dark may be oxidized or spoiled. Give it a sniff test – rancid odor means throw it out. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

Can ham go bad in the freezer?

Yes, ham can spoil in the freezer over time. The extremely cold temperatures just slow down bacteria growth – they don’t completely stop it. Store ham tightly wrapped for no more than 2-4 months. Discoloration, ice crystals, or dry spots indicate freezer burn and the start of spoilage.

What happens if you eat bad ham?

Eating bad ham puts you at risk for foodborne illness. Potential symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, chills, cramps, and fatigue. In severe cases, meat contaminated with bacteria can progress to dehydration, hospitalization, and even death in those with compromised immunity.


Ham has a relatively short shelf life and can go bad within 1-2 weeks in the fridge. Make sure to check ham for sliminess, mold, unpleasant odors, and unnatural colors or textures. Spoiled ham should be thrown out immediately, as bacteria that cause it to go bad can lead to food poisoning. With proper refrigeration and handling, along with following recommended storage times, you can extend the shelf life of ham and keep it fresh for longer. Discard ham at the first signs of spoilage for food safety.

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