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Why Does Deli Meat Get Slimy?

That slime isn’t coming from the meat itself

Just yesterday, I went to the grocery store and picked up some sliced chicken from the deli counter. When I went to make today’s sandwich, there was already a slimy film on top of my meat. It tasted fine, though it certainly didn’t look too appealing. But I ordered Boar’s Head Oven-Roasted Chicken, not slime, thank you very much. So what is this stuff? 

The short answer is, it’s a by-product of living in a processed foods world. According to Ray Rastelli Jr., butcher and president of the Rastelli Foods Group, “The large majority of ‘deli-style’ meats are products that are typically made using beef, pork, chicken or turkey meats as the foundation for the end product,” he says. “However, they also carry ‘added-ingredients,’ also known as a value-added product, which can produce the ‘slime’ you’re seeing.”

These added ingredients — which Rastelli says are known in the food industry as an “injection, stitch pump, additives or flavors” — are typically added to the blocks of meat that your cold cuts are sliced off from. The idea is that these additives will make the meat more commercially appealing, in terms of taste, texture and appearance. They can include natural or artificial flavorings; dextrose (which is a fancy way of saying sugar); carrageenan (which is a thickener and gelling agent); food starches, which can make meat look plumper; as well as salt and other sodium phosphates for taste, which for ham often means sodium nitrates and sodium erythorbate. 

Rastelli says that the slime is caused by these added ingredients as they begin to dissolve and start to leak out of the cold cuts. “There isn’t a scientifically established time as to how and when this process occurs, but it usually starts once the initial package is opened and the meat is sliced,” says Rastelli. “The whole, unsliced initial product literally encases these added ingredients, so once opened and sliced, the dissolved ingredients that were injected into the meat originally now have a mode to leak out of the product.”

Rastelli admits that the slime “may appear odd to a consumer,” but he insists that it doesn’t mean your meat has started to go bad. “You may notice on sliced roast beef an odd and metallic rainbow appearance; this isn’t a spoilage indicator. Rather it’s caused by light diffraction. Essentially what occurs here is that light waves bend on and around the surface of the meat, creating this appearance.”

Sliced deli meat is generally safe to eat for three to five days after purchase, Rastelli says, as long as it’s kept “in a refrigerator that’s maintained at or below 40 degrees.”  But if you can’t deal with the slime, or if you’re concerned about your sugar intake, which most nutritionists insist you should be, as a study published in 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine, “found an association between a high-sugar diet and a greater risk of dying from heart disease,” you have options. 

“Deli meats that have been ‘injected or pumped’ with ingredients, typically water-based to a higher level of adding or injecting, are the ones that may tend to leak more as the meat block itself can only retain so much moisture,” Rastelli says. “Products with a lower percent of injection or added ingredients are therefore drier from the cooking process and don’t usually ‘leak.’ Purchasing a product that’s claimed to be ‘natural’ typically has less added ingredients, less water and binders, and will eat more like ‘natural’ meat.” 

He adds, “I always recommend buying store-cooked deli meats — they tend to not have these added ingredients that cause ‘the slime.’”

But if you live in an area where additive-free, natural meat isn’t available, or if you love that Boar’s Head Ichiban teriyaki-style chicken breast too much to give it up, Rastelli says that keeping your meat refrigerated “in a tightly sealed container with as little oxygen as possible is a great help,” which will also help keep it from going bad. “Oxygen-rich environments are a great medium for the formation of spoilage bacteria. So keep your meats sealed and cold!” he advises. 

Unless, y’know, you dig that slime.

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