Pork Ribs Smells Like Sulfur or Eggs? Are they Safe?

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
September 19, 2022

When opening a rack of ribs from their vacuum packaging, you might be greeted with a mild smell of sulfur or eggs; Most beginners will mistakenly believe the ribs are no longer safe to eat.

Truth be told, this smell is usually completely normal and will go away after 10-15 minutes of being allowed to oxygenate. For much the same reason, the meat may appear "darker" in color.

If the meat still smells after 30 minutes of being allowed to "bloom," it's best to not eat the meat and discard it.

The Butcher's axiom of "if in doubt, throw it out" applies here. Meaning if you have any doubts, throw the ribs out.

How Are Ribs Packaged?

There are a couple of different ways that pork ribs can be packaged. The main ways are:

  • Full racks of pork ribs are usually vacuum sealed.
  • Half racks or less are usually packaged in either modified atmosphere package (MAP) or in store wrap.

These methods of packaging ribs have a direct impact on color, smell, and spoilage.

Vacuum Sealed Ribs

In a grocery store you're apt to find full racks of ribs that have been vacuum sealed with a high barrier film like cryovac.

Vacuum packaging removes oxygen from the packaging and prevents oxidation of the meat; Oxidation of meat has a direct impact on things like flavor, color, and odor.

vacuum sealed ribs
Vacuum sealed ribs opened

The goal of vacuum sealing is to slow down the spoilage process.

The lack of oxygen creates an anaerobic (absence of free oxygen) environment which limits the growth of oxygen-induced bacteria. It also prevents the evaporation of volatile compounds - hence why it prevents "freezer burn" or sublimation from occurring.

Meat packaged in a vacuum can also tend to sweat and leach things like water and myoglobin; This is called a meat purge.

Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) Ribs

I don't tend to find ribs stored in Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) but depending on where you live, you might.

In a MAP, the meat is sold is a plastic tray and placed on top of an absorbent pad. The meat is vacuumed to remove residual air and is then flushed with a modified atmosphere.

The gases that are used are typically found in air. The ratios that are used are for the sake of the Consumer.

Typically there is a combination of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.

  • Nitrogen is an inert gas and is used to fill headspace.
  • Carbon monoxide is used for color stability (called "Bloom").
  • Carbon dioxide is used for antimicrobial properties.

Store Wrap

In my local grocery store, I tend to find country style ribs as well as packages of 3-4 spare ribs in "store wrap."

Store wrap is essentially a foam tray that holds the meat with an absorbent pad underneath. There is a then a plastic film placed around the meat and tray.

The barrier considers things like oxygen, light, heat, moisture, and oil.

The materials also need to be puncture and tear resistant to some extent so that they can limit the potential for oxygen exposure.

These packages have the shortest shelf life as the barrier is atmosphere permeable.

The Smell of Ribs

Something to keep in mind is that fresh meat has no smell.

Upon opening a vacuum sealed rib, the package may emit a mild sulfur/egg smell from the sulfur constituents in the bones as well as bone dust from processing.

Vacuum sealing allows these gasses to concentrate as the meat sweats within the vacuum.

When the seal is broken and the ribs are exposed to oxygen, this smell will dissipate - usually in around 10-15 minutes of the package being opened.

If this smell lingers for longer than 30 minutes, the ribs have likely spoiled and should be thrown out.

It should be noted, the odor upon initially opening the vacuum package is best described as a mild egg smell, not a sweet/sour, yeasty smell. The latter likely meaning the meat has spoiled.

Smell also isn't the only factor to consider.

You should also look at the color and the feel of the ribs. If the smell is accompanied by an off-color or a slimy/sticky feeling, you should discard it.

The Color of Ribs

Meat color is based on myoglobin and oxygen interaction. Myoglobin is a protein that stores oxygen in cells and is purple in color.

color of ribs
Ribs taken out of vacuum packaging

The color of meat is categorically unstable because our atmosphere is made up of oxygen.

When myoglobin comes into contact with oxygen, the iron in the muscle will react and become unstable; It will turn hues of purple, red, or brown based on the level of oxygen that's present.

In a vacuum package, the ribs are a dark pink as apposed to a bright pink. Many consumers might deem the "dark pink" as bad, when it's not. Upon breaking the seal and introducing Oxygen, the meat will "bloom" or turn bright pink.

In a MAP the meat is likely a bright pink color; The same could be said for red meats being red rather than purple or "blue." This is done for the sake of Consumers as we're conditioned to know that these colors mean "fresh."

However, if the meat appears significantly discolored - often shades of green or brown and it's accompanied by a lingering sweet/sour smell, the meat should be discarded.

The Feel of the Ribs

Meat that has gone bad will have a noticeable "sliminess" or "stickiness" on the surface. This is a pretty clear indication that bacteria have started to multiply on the surface of the meat.

In this case, the meat should be discarded.

It's worth noting here that vacuum sealed meat will have a wet surface due to what's called the "purge." However, this liquid is not sticky nor slimy to the touch.

ribs wet from being covered in purge liquid
Ribs wet from purge liquid

Meat - a more optimal word would be muscles - are comprised of primarily water. As meat is processed the proteins will start losing their ability to hold onto water - this process is called syneresis.

As water leaves the muscle, with it is the water-soluble protein called Myoglobin (discussed above). Many people mistaken this liquid for blood, when it's not. Blood gets it's color from hemoglobin.

When meat is vacuum sealed it sweats and this purge liquid surrounds the meat and covers it. Personally, I pat dry this liquid with a paper towel where-as some folks use it as their binder.

pork rib meat purge
Pork rib meat purge

You do not need to rinse your ribs in the sink to clean them. Doing so is completely unnecessary due to the modern methods of the food safety system. Truth be told, rinsing your ribs potentially contaminates your sink and work surfaces.

Even in the case of them feeling slimy, do not rinse them. The bacteria have already colonized the surface of the meat and the ribs should be discarded.

Dylan Clay
I've grilled and smoked meat for roughly half my life. While i'm not a professional Pitmaster, I've worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands on guide to teach them BBQ. It's my hope that Barbecue FAQ can be that helping hand.

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