Maybe this scenario sounds familiar to you. You are looking in your freezer and notice this package of pasture raised chicken way in the back of your freezer. It got pushed into the back and blocked by all your frozen garden produce. And now you are thinking, “Hmm, I bought this last year. Is it still OK?”
The good news is that your pasture raised chicken is probably still in great shape. There are just a few things needed to inform your decision.
One big source of confusion comes from the “Freezer Storage Guidelines” printed inside the doors of many freezers. When we were getting our start farming pastured poultry, I stored meat in a long row of chest freezers. One thing I noticed was that each freezer had different storage recommendations listed. Actually, the two US agencies assigned with aspects of food safety, the FDA and USDA, each have freezer guidelines of their own and they don’t completely agree with each other, and they neither of them agree with the guidelines printed on the freezer doors I’ve seen.
The truth is that storage time is not the most significant factor influencing food quality. Any of these charts with recommendations are just guesses that ignore the more important factors.
Temperature Stability Is Critical
If your freezer is starting to flake out, if it can’t keep items cold during summer heat waves, then your frozen chicken is going to degrade. Especially if the temperature gets up into the 20s, you are headed for trouble. The liquid in meat has dissolved salts and minerals in it, so it begins to thaw around 28 degrees rather than 32 degrees. Subjecting meat to multiple freeze-thaw cycles can cause cells to rupture, eventually wreaking havoc and ruining the texture.
A good home freezer should be able to hold a stable temperature at 0 degrees. One suggestion for helping your freezer maintain that temperature is to be careful if you are adding a lot of non-frozen items into the freezer. If you need to freeze down a large amount of warm material, consider adding it in phases. This will prevent your freezer from being overwhelmed and endangering all your previously frozen contents.
Packaging Makes the Difference
If the freezer has been behaving, the next thing to do is to look at the packaging. Is it still sealed and intact?
When packaging tears, the frozen meat is exposed to cold, dry air in the freezer. We all know that moisture can evaporate in warm air, but water can also be removed in a frozen state. The process of sublimation occurs when water changes directly from ice to vapor without going through a liquid phase. When your chicken or other meat experiences sublimation, the surface of the meat is left with microscopic voids. Over time, the oxygen in the air begins to degrade (oxidize) the meat, and as more pores open up the process accelerates. We call this freezer burn.
To prevent freezer burn we vacuum seal all our pasture raised chicken cuts (breasts, wings, thighs, drumsticks). For our whole chickens we use a shrink bag process. Since there is a big cavity in the middle of a whole chicken, it doesn’t help to vacuum seal it, but we can minimize the exposed area by shrink bagging it.
Inspect your packages for rips or tears. If the packaging appears intact, then freezer burn is unlikely to occur.
Our Experience With Home Freezer Storage
For our frozen product storage, we now use walk in freezers that maintain a temperature of -10 degrees. They are brutally cold to work in, but they do a great job of maintaining products in top quality. But for our own home kitchen we use an ancient chest freezer and a ten year old upright freezer. I want to make sure my food storage is reflective of the conditions our customers experience.
I like conducting experiments with myself as the guinea pig. I have stored frozen packages of our farm’s grass fed beef and pasture raised chicken in our home freezer for over three years. I have a few packages that are now almost four years old. Looking at them, the appear identical to the brand new meat we just froze this week. I am not a professional taste tester, but I think I can say I have some pretty developed tastes when it comes to meat. I cannot discern any degradation on packages of chicken or beef that are three years old. Check back in a few months if you want a report on four year old meat.
Because I do all the order packing, I try to catch any broken packages while sorting the orders. Our family ends up eating all the meat with bad packaging and mild cases of freezer burn. If the freezer burn is far advanced, then the meat usually ends up served to our cats. Freezer burn by itself isn’t really a food safety issue as much as it is a flavor and texture problem. When meat undergoes freezer burn, the oxidation leaves the affected meat with a stale taste and a dry, flat texture. We don’t enjoy it but our cats are perfectly pleased with it.
So How Long Can I Keep Pasture Raised Chicken In My Freezer?
If your freezer is working properly and if the packaging is tight and intact, then we can recommend storing all your pasture raised and grass fed meats from Wrong Direction Farm for at least one year without trouble. I double checked with the NY Ag and Markets department (they oversee meat processing and food safety inspections) and they agreed that storing any meat frozen for one year would be no problem. They said I would need to hire out lab testing if I wanted to recommend storing it for longer than one year. Those testing costs easily exceeded our farm’s budget, so I haven’t pursued that further.
I can state with confidence that storing pasture raised meat for one year in the freezer is a safe and sound practice as long as you have a good freezer and good packaging. For periods longer than that I can’t make any official pronouncements, but I can confirm that in my home freezer I’ve successfully stored meat for over three years.
Have Other Questions?
If you have other questions about storing or cooking pasture raised chicken or grass fed beef, please let me know. I am always interested in hearing from the people who are eating the food our family produces on our farm. For further reading on topics related to our pastured poultry, I suggest reading the following: