November 3

Pork Smells Like Sulfur – Is this Natural?

Written by: Caitlin Clark

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You’ve just purchased a fresh pork loin or pork chop from your local butcher. What is its color? How does it smell?

Now imagine you purchased the same piece of meat from the supermarket. Do you expect it to look the same and smell the same? 

Few people realize that pork from the supermarket is processed and packaged differently than pork you might buy from your butcher. These differences might affect how the product looks and smells.

Some people have even noticed a smell in packaged supermarket pork reminiscent of eggs or sulfur, but this does not necessarily mean the meat isn’t fresh. Instead, it has to do with packaging conditions, which have adapted to fill supermarket shelves with long-lasting meat. 

Let’s look at some of the reasons this can happen, and how to know whether odd-smelling meat can be salvaged or if you should let it go. 

Why Does My Pork Smell Like Eggs?

raw-pork-chops

There are two reasons why pork can smell “off” in a way that could remind you of sulfur or eggs. 

The first smell is of "cryovac" pork. Unlike most butchers, supermarkets use a technology called cryovac sealing to keep oxygen away from meat. The oxygen-free environment helps preserve the meat, but it also sometimes causes fragments of bone powder and tissue to break down and release sulfur. You will notice this smell in the uncooked meat when you open the packaging.

The second possibility is that your pork has “boar taint." This smell is derived from two chemicals (called androstenone, skatole, and indole), that are produced by uncastrated male pigs. If the gonads remain intact, these chemicals circulate in the bloodstream and can cause unpleasant flavors, especially if the pigs are mistreated, improperly fed, or anxious before slaughter.  

In the past, castration of male piglets was common in order to prevent boar taint. However castration is increasingly frowned upon – the E.U. even went so far as to ban the practice starting in 2018. Instead, many producers are turning to livestock management practices as a preventative measure, but this is no guarantee.

Sometimes, there are no signs of boar tant in raw pork, and the odor only evolves once the pork is cooked. 


Is It Safe to Eat?

raw-pork-meat-on-bone

The short story is that a mild sulfury smell in raw pork is probably just due to the cryovac packaging, and should be safe to eat.

If the smell appears in cooked pork, it could be due to boar taint, and should still be safe to eat.

However, an aggressively strong smell does indicate unsafe meat –more on that below.


Should Raw Pork or Pork Products Have a Smell?

raw-pork-being-chopped

Raw pork that has not been vacuum-packed should have a faint smell of blood, which reminds some people of copper. You may also discern the smell of animal fat. 

Vacuum-packed raw pork might smell slightly like sulfur or eggs, but unless the smell is very strong, it is probably worth trying the remedies below before throwing the meat away. 

Sausage such as chorizo or longaniza, which are made from raw pork that has been cured and fermented, should smell tangy with the aroma of the spices used to flavor them. If these products smell like sulfur or eggs, immediately discard them. 


Remedies to Fix the Egg Smell (if the pork is still good)

board-of-spices

To fix the smell of cryovac pork, a gentle rinse with cold water will wash away the broken-down bone and tissue material that is causing the egg-like smell. Just make sure to use a gentle stream of water to avoid splashing, since splashed water droplets spread bacteria.

Allow the pork to rest on the countertop for 20-30 minutes before cooking it. Sulfur is extremely volatile and will quickly dissipate. This step will also allow the meat to regain its appetizing color upon exposure to oxygen. 

On the other hand, the smell of boar taint can not be fixed, but it can be disguised. Often the taint is slight, and people choose to pair the pork with a strong gravy or sauce, perhaps containing garlic or other competing aroma that can overpower the taint.

Combining the meat with strong spices is another good trick. Instead of taking care of boar taint in the kitchen, consumers must rely on farms and processors to minimize of risk of boar taint. As the practice of physical castration becomes less common, some processors are opting for immunological castration, good feeding and management practices, and genetic selection of animals that are unlikely to express the undesirable chemicals. 


Telltale Signs Your Pork is Bad

raw-pork-with-herbs

Despite this information, you might still be suspicious that your pork is unsafe to eat. If your pork has gone bad, it might show some of these signs:

  • It has a truly foul, sour, or ammonia-like odor.
  • The vacuum-seal packaging is broken or damaged.
  • The meat is not springy to the touch, but rather feels tough, or if it feels overly soft and does not quickly level out when pressed. 
  • The meat exhibits visible slime or feels slimy to the touch.
  • If you are working with ground pork, this should never smell like sulfur (or have any other smell other than copper and porkfat). If it smells eggy, throw it away. 
  • The meat shows signs of visible mold. 
  • The meat still smells sulfury even after you have rinsed it and allowed it to rest on the countertop for 20-30 minutes.
  • The meat is still an unappealing shade of grey or brown even after it has rested on the countertop for 20-30 minutes.


How to Avoid Egg Smelling Pork in the Future

To avoid the sulfury smell of cryovac pork, buy your meat as fresh as possible and use it within a few days after purchasing. Because the smell comes from small bits of bone and tissue matter breaking down over time, the less time your pork sits on a supermarket shelf or in a home refrigerator, the less noticeable this smell will be. 

On the other hand, boar taint can occur even in very fresh meat. The best way to steer clear of boar taint is to work with a butcher who can guarantee that their meat comes from a farm where male piglets are castrated or, if this practice has been discontinued, where appropriate feeding, handling, and slaughtering conventions are used to minimize the risk. Once you have found a producer you trust, continue to purchase from the same source. 


Frequently Asked Questions

raw-pork-with-rosemary

What is Recommended Internal Temperature of Cooked Pork?

Currently, the USDA recommends cooking whole cuts of pork to a minimum final temperature of 145°F (63°C).  Ground pork should be cooked to 160°F (71°C). 


How Long Will Pork Last in the Fridge?

At a typical home fridge temperature of 40°F (4.4°C), pork will last 3-5 days in the fridge. You can freeze it if you are unable to use it within this time, but once you take it out of the freezer use it right away! 


Conclusion

Now you know how to distinguish rotten pork from smells that can occur safely through processing or packaging conditions. A sulfury smell in raw or cooked pork isn’t always a bad sign, but trust your gut if you are suspicious – a few dollars of meat is not worth the potential risk of becoming seriously ill!

Caitlin


References:

Bassey, A. P., Chen, Y., Boateng, E. F., Zhang, Y., Diao, X., Nasiru, M. M., Tang, C., Ye, K., Li, C., & Zhou, G. (2022). Evaluation of physicochemical, microbiological, and sensory profiles of vacuum-packed cooked low-salt pork belly under refrigeration and room-temperature storage. LWT, 167, 113847. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2022.113847

Cooking Meat? Check the New Recommended Temperatures. (2020). Retrieved October 27, 2022, from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2011/05/25/cooking-meat-check-new-recommended-temperatures

Font-I-Furnols, M., Martín-Bernal, R., Aluwé, M., Bonneau, M., Haugen, J.-E., Mörlein, D., Mörlein, J., Panella-Riera, N., & Škrlep, M. (1886). Feasibility of on/at Line Methods to Determine Boar Taint and Boar Taint Compounds: An Overview. 10. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10101886

Fresh Pork from Farm to Table | Food Safety and Inspection Service. (2013). Retrieved October 27, 2022, from http://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/meat/fresh-prk-farm-table

Heyrman, E., Millet, S., Tuyttens, F. A. M., Ampe, B., Janssens, S., Buys, N., Wauters, J., Vanhaecke, L., & Aluwé, M. (2017). Olfactory evaluation of boar taint: Effect of factors measured at slaughter and link with boar taint compounds. Animal, 11(11), 2084–2093. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1751731117000994

Nikulina, E. O., Ivanova, G. V., Kolman, O. I., Ivanova, A. N., & Perestoronin, D. Y. (2021). Research of the influence of vacuum packaging on the quality and safety of meat semi-finished products. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 677(3), 032066. https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/677/3/032066

Oreskovich, D., Mckeith, F., Bechtel, P., Novakofski, J., & Hudson, M. (1986). Consumer Acceptability of Vaccum Packaged Pork. Journal of Food Distribution Research, 17.

What is boar taint and how can it be prevented? – RSPCA Knowledgebase. (2019). Retrieved October 27, 2022, from https://kb.rspca.org.au/knowledge-base/what-is-boar-taint-and-how-can-it-be-prevented/


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About the author

Caitlin is a Ph.D student and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University. Her research in the Food Science program focuses on chocolate fermentation (that’s right, it’s a fermented food!) and small-batch post-harvest processing techniques. When she is not acting in her capacity as resident chocolate guru, she researches other fermented foods and beverages like beer, sausage, and natto. Caitlin was drawn to fermented foods while living in rural Spain for six years, where she was exposed to traditional, time-honored practices of food preservation. At home, she practices Bollywood dance for fun and is followed everywhere by two small pet rabbits.

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