Defrosting and Re-Freezing Safety + Practical Tips for Raw Feeders

The below information was taken directly from the USDA’s The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods for Consumers document, and edited/modified by SFRAW to be relevant and useful for raw feeders.

Submerging frozen meat (sealed in plastic) in cold water is a safe method to defrost food quickly!
Submerging frozen meat (sealed in plastic) in cold water is a safe method to defrost food quickly!

Uh, oh! You’re home and forgot to thaw something for dinner. You grab a package of meat or chicken and use hot water to thaw it fast. But is this safe? What if you remembered to take food out of the freezer, but forgot and left the package on the counter all day while you were at work?

Neither of these situations is considered safe, and these methods of thawing may lead to foodborne illness. Raw or cooked meat, poultry or egg products, as any perishable foods, must be kept at a safe temperature during “the big thaw.” They are safe indefinitely while frozen. However, as soon as they begin to thaw and become warmer than 40 °F, bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to multiply.

Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter, or in hot water and must not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

Even though the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food could be in the “Danger Zone,” between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly.

When thawing frozen food, it’s best to plan ahead and thaw in the refrigerator where it will remain at a safe, constant temperature — at 40 °F or below.

There are two SFRAW-recommended safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator or in cold water.

Refrigerator Thawing (for everyday feeding)
Cold Water Thawing (the only SFRAW approved quick way to defrost in urgent situations)
Note: Microwave Thawing is never recommended by SFRAW

It is important to defrost all raw meat in a leak proof bin or very large Tupperware/Rubbermaid bin inside your refrigerator to ensure defrosted liquids that leak off the frozen meat packs do not contaminating your other foods.
It is important to defrost all raw meat in a leak proof bin or very large Tupperware/Rubbermaid bin inside your refrigerator to ensure defrosted liquids that leak off the frozen meat packs do not contaminating your other foods.

Refrigerator Thawing
Planning ahead is the key to this method because of the lengthy time involved. A large frozen item like a turkey requires at least a day (24 hours) for every 5 pounds of weight. Even small amounts of frozen food — such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts — require a full day to thaw. When thawing foods in the refrigerator, there are variables to take into account. Some areas of the appliance may keep food colder than other areas. Food will take longer to thaw in a refrigerator set at 35 °F than one set at 40 °F.

Our suggestion on how to store and manage your pet’s frozen meals for easy and safe feeding:

We suggest using a seperate bin or bowl that will prevent leaks from occurring to defrost your pet’s food in.  We suggest maintaining three day’s worth of meals in your refrigerator for your pet, ongoing:
1) a day’s worth of food which is fully defrosted and that you are currently feeding;
2) a day’s worth of food that is ready to feed the next day/partially defrosted;
3) a day’s worth of food that you just pulled from the freezer/fully frozen and just starting to defrost.

Simply pull a meal from the freezer every time you finish feeding a currently using/fully defrosted meal, so you always have three days worth of food in various states of defrosting and ready to go without having to scramble.

IMPORTANT: After you defrost any frozen raw foods you have 2 days to feed this to your pet. When defrosting large bags or cases of things to pack-up into meals at home, you can safely re-freeze after portioning out these foods for future meals, but you should get it back into the freezer within one day of defrosting these ingredients.

TIP: If you forget to defrost a meal, and have an urgent situation due to your adorable hungry-hungry-hippo nipping at your heals or giving you that, “I’m starving!” look, here are some suggestions on how to handle:

1) Fasting opportunity! Healthy adult dogs can safely fast, with just access to clean water, for up to three days. Dogs that fast generally experience an improvement in their overall health; seizing the opportunity to work in a day of fasting here and there will prove beneficial for your dog! Cats that are overweight should never be fasted due to the possible risk of Feline Hepatic Lipidosis. However, healthy, svelte adult kitties may be safely fasted for up to 24-hours, generally, with a rather beneficial outcome and imporvement in their overall energy, digestion, and health.

Indeed, many people intentionally schedule in regular weekly fasting days as part of their feeding schedule – some people even feed according to a method called, “fast and gorge” — which is not for everyone but it is a perfectly fine way to feed your raw fed dog.

The benefits of fasting are well documented and fasting is an excellent “reboot”, recovery, and effective appetite reset for your animal’s system, and even a time-honored and very well proven natural method for healing during illness. Instead of food, spend extra time engaging with your pet doing favorite activities such as grooming, training, snuggling, playing, sunbathing, spending time in nature, or going for relaxing hikes/walks.

2) The incredible edible egg to the rescue! Either raw or cooked, and egg or two makes for a nice quick and easy meal. Drizzle with a tiny bit of healthy fat, if you’d like: a bit of pastured unsalted butter or ghee, coconut oil, pastured lard and a sprinkling of fresh or dried culinary herbs (if you want, totally optional!) makes for a delicious, nutrient dense meal.  Eggs are a real saving grace for many people when nothing has been defrosted or the cupboard is bare. Truly pastured eggs have a ridiculously long shelf life, and are a great little meal in a pinch. Yes, you can feed the shell, too. Just realize that the shell is not an adequate source of calcium, unless it has been properly dried and pulverized. In its raw form, eggshells are safe and perfectly edible, but will pass through mostly undigested.

3) Fast fish meals! Individually frozen whole sardines, mackerel, anchovies, mussels, oysters or these species of canned seafood in water, olive oil, or even tomato (as a special treat). These foods make an easy quick meal for your dog (we do not suggest feeding seafood to cats). Just don’t overdo it — these are healthy, but somewhat rich, offerings. If your dog is not accustomed to eating whole fish or a meal of fish, it is best to start slowly with a small amount. Vomited fish or seafood is — as you can imagine — really gross to clean up/deal with! To avoid this smelly catastrophe, we suggest offering a small amount to see how they do first with fish fed alone as a meal. You can even divide it up into a few meals for the day until you get something defrosted.

4) Plain yogurt, raw goat milk, goat milk kefir or goat milk whey. These functional foods are kept in your refigerator for days/weeks and are totally fine to feed alone as a snack or even as a meal, in a pinch. You can find raw goat milk whey in a powdered format that can be rehydrated and served as a meal/snack.

Alternatively, (optional, not necessary) you may choose to add some extras to the raw dairy meal. For example, sprinkle a bit of organic cinnimon, add a touch of organic blackstrap molasses, a little drizzle of raw local honey, whip in a pastured egg yolk, organic turmeric powder/black pepper, organic slippery elm bark powder (for a boost in nutrients) or a bit of powdered organic ginger. Your animal will enjoy the benefits of the probiotics and enzymes found in raw milk. Yogurt, whey, and kefir all are protien rich foods. This is a great choice for any animal when you are out of food or forgot to defrost — they are also wonderful to add to any meal as part of the regular routine/menu.

5) Bone broth. This can be heated up and served warm to your pet any time. Bone broth makes for a nourishing, light, healing meal. If you have it in your freezer, you can quickly and easily heat it up from its frozen state and have a meal or nutritional snack in a few minutes for your animal. Just be sure you use a home-made broth or prepared broth that is suitable for dogs and cats — that means no onion and low-salt or salt-free.

After thawing in the refrigerator, items such as ground meat, stew meat, poultry, seafood, should remain safe and good quality for an additional day or two before using; red meat cuts (such as beef, pork or lamb roasts, chops and steaks) up to 3 days. Be aware that all bone-in cuts “go bad” far more quickly than boneless meats. For this reason, we mantain our standard reccomendation to “feed within 2-days” for all defrosted foods being fed raw to your dogs and cats.

Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without any issued for safety, although there may be some loss of quality when it comes to taste/texture after defrosted the second time around (depending on the freshness and handling of the original product).

TIP: The liquid and blood that pools up and leaks off your defrosted raw foods is source of water-soluble nutrients including TAURINE — an essential and necessary amino-acid for cats. We suggest allowing your animals to drink/lick this defrosted liquid, or to mix this liquid in with their meals so they are not missing out on these nutrients lost during defrosting.

Submerging frozen meat (sealed in plastic) in cold water is a safe method to defrost food quickly!
Submerging frozen meat (sealed in plastic) in cold water is a safe method to defrost food quickly!

QUICK METHOD: Cold Water Thawing
This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Also, the meat tissue may absorb water, resulting in a watery product. The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw is ideal and recommended by the USDA/FDA. For our pets, we feel ok with allowing it to defrost in cold water until ready to feed (a few hours or even overnight) *when the ambient temperature is low. If you are doing this during a heat wave, yes, please do change the water every 30-minutes. The idea is that the water needs to stay cool/cold – so check it often and decide if you need to refresh the cold water or not. Usually, living in San Francisco, we are able to let it defrost without needing to refresh the water. The frozen food acts as big ice cube and the bigger it is, the colder the water will stay. Small packages of meat, poultry or seafood — about a pound — may thaw in an hour or less. A 3-to 4-pound package may take 2 to 3 hours. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound. If thawed completely, the food must be placed in the refrigerator or portioned out to re-freeze immediately.

The USDA/FDA suggest foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing; but we find this is not necessary for our raw fed dogs/cats. It is important to refreeze after portioning within a day or so, however.

What about? Cooking Without Thawing
[For those of you that feed cooked meals] When there is not enough time to thaw frozen foods, or you’re simply in a hurry, just remember: it is safe to cook foods from the frozen state. The cooking will take approximately 50% longer than the recommended time for fully thawed or fresh meat and poultry.

When defrosting meals/fresh meat ingredients, use a drip-proof deep bin or bucket in your refrigerator to prevent leaks from occurring, which would contaminating your refrigerator and possibly other foods inside the fridge. When using the cold water method to defrost quickly, use a big bowl placed in the sink, or a bucket or deep bin in a cool temperature area of the home, for best results and easier sanitation/clean-up. TIP: We recommend simply using a clean cloth or disposable towel with hot/warm water, a little dish soap and white vinegar for sanitation. Please wash/clean or dispose of the towel or cloth after using it to clean-up raw meat meals and dutifully wash or replace your pet’s bowls/eating mats after each meal. If you use a sponge, you can run it through the laundry washing machine or dishwasher on sanitize cycle to re-use it again – replace frequently, as needed. Alternatively, you may consider using a Norwex cleaning cloth (imbedded with silver = antibacterial). Finally, after clean-up, spraying areas with a solution of either Grapefruit Seed Extract diluted in water or 3% hydrogen peroxide solution after you make meals or feed your pets is an additional measure of safety some people like to use. Just be sure you don’t get the peroxide solution into their food/meals. While it is safe and completely non-toxic, hydrogen peroxide is used to induce vomiting in emergency veterinary medicine, and it may cause vomiting in your pet. After the peroxide solution has air-dried from the surfaces that you have sprayed it on, it is not a risk for this to your animals.


Lastly, whenever we discuss raw feeding meat to dogs and cats, it is important to remember that the health risk of bacteria from the raw meats is largely (if not exclusively) to US (the humans) not so much to our little carnivores.  YES, it is true that dogs in particular and cats (in some respects) are biologically designed to handle bacteria loads in their foods without ever becoming ill — bacteria counts that would most likely pose a risk to humans are not generally an issue for most healthy raw fed pets.  SFRAW makes great efforts to source only the freshest, most carefully/expertly raised, processed and handled meats/ingredients — IMO, careful sourcing from producers you know and trust and from a properly and carefully managed supply chain is the NUMBER ONE step anyone can do to secure the safety of the foods we procure. Unfortunately, careful sourcing and handling from birth to market are measures of safety that are often overlooked when you read safe food handling guidelines.

So, while dogs DO lick their butts, some eat poop and most will happily consume rotten carrion; and cats can handle some level of bacteria well, too – it is still important to handle raw meat properly in your home kitchen. I hear too often of people “pushing it” and wondering why their pet is experiencing low-grade digestive issues — once they stop leaving the food out too long, or using the same meal/food for more than 2 days, or defrosting improperly, the issues typically vanish. Perhaps a less careful method of handling would be fine for one individual dog/cat, but not suitable for another — perhaps it was ok when an individual dog/cat was younger, but not ok now that they are older -? You really never know when a pet’s immune system is stressed, and they become are more susceptible to infections; the immune system is completely dynamic. If they are very young/old, chronically ill, or new to eating raw foods — they are not as well adapted to handling bacteria loads as a long-time healthy raw fed animal may be. So, it is better to maintain safe food handling practices to ensure you don’t pose unnecessary health hazards to you our anyone in your family! Just make your food handling methods a habit – be mindful or temperatures, wash your hands and keep things clean – and enjoy in good health!