Optimum surface color of fresh meat (i.e., cherry-red for beef; dark cherry-red for lamb; grayish-pink for pork; and pale pink for veal) is highly unstable and short-lived. When meat is fresh and protected from contact with air (such as in vacuum packages), it has the purple-red color that comes from myoglobin, one of the two key pigments responsible for the color of meat. When exposed to air, myoglobin forms the pigment, oxymyoglobin, which gives meat a pleasingly cherry-red color. The use of a plastic wrap that allows oxygen to pass through it helps ensure that the cut meats will retain this bright red color.
However, exposure to store lighting as well as the continued contact of myoglobin and oxymyoglobin with oxygen leads to the formation of metmyoglobin, a pigment that turns meat brownish-red. This color change alone does not mean the product is spoiled. Color changes are normal for fresh product. With spoilage there can be a change in color—often a fading or darkening. In addition to the color change, the meat or poultry will have an off odor, be sticky or tacky to the touch, or it may be slimy. If meat has developed these characteristics, it should not be used.