Carnivores now have something to worry about beyond cholesterol and saturated fats. It seems that the juicy red appearance of meat at your grocery store may, in fact, be a lie. When left in a butcher’s case without packaging, meat retains its red color only a few days before starting to go rancid and turning gray-brown. That’s just not long enough to allow for distribution and warehousing — let alone end sales at the supermarket. So how is it that the meat at the grocery store retains its fresh rosy glow for weeks on end? According to a recent article in USA Today, the secret lies in infusing the packaging with carbon monoxide — a widely used practice. It seems that dosing the meat with carbon monoxide keeps it looking good for at least 20 days — double the amount of time achieved by other packaging methods. That’s also about nine times the number of days beyond when it goes rancid naturally.
Unfortunately, that “preserved” meat that looks so delectable ain’t necessarily what it seems. According to critics, the hunk of beef that appears so perfect for dinner might actually be more perfect for the trashcan because carbon monoxide treatment merely the masks signs of aging without actually preserving the meat. When exposed to the gas, a pigment in meat reacts by turning bright red, disguising signs of aging and putrification. (Ah! If only cosmetologists could only figure out how to dose baby-boomers with carbon monoxide to mask our signs of aging and decay.) On top of everything else, carbon monoxide masks odors and slime — and the effects last well beyond the point at which the meat goes bad, so a fresh-looking pork chop might actually pose a health threat.
The issue came into focus recently when a Michigan health-food company, Kalsec, Inc., filed a petition with the FDA calling for an end to the use of carbon-monoxide packaging. Kalsec has spent $800,000 over the past few years challenging food regulators and meat producers over the issue, claiming that, “The packaging presents serious consumer deception and food-safety risks.” Kalsec points out that “treating meat with carbon monoxide could hide the growth of pathogens such as Clostridium botulinum, Salmonella, and E. coli O157:H7.”
The American meat industry (not surprisingly) disagrees, insisting that the onus should be on consumers, who have a responsibility to check expiration dates on packages in order to be safe. (And doesn’t that just give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.) Vice President Phil Minerich of Hormel Foods — which has sold 120 million packages of carbon monoxide infused product — says, “Packaging gases have never been labeled,” thus pulling out the old, “It’s safe because this is how we’ve always done it” argument. And Michael Osterholm, a public health official at the University of Minnesota who also consults for Hormel Foods, says he’s “…never heard of a food-borne illness outbreak tied to spoiled meat, in part because bacteria such as E. coli don’t thrive in spoiled meat because spoilage bacteria out-compete them for nutrients.” Hey, is it just me or is this a really odd argument — that it’s fine to sell spoiled meat because it’s so spoiled even E.coli won’t touch it? (Again with that warm fuzzy feeling.)
In spite of all these impassioned arguments from the meat people, large retailers including Safeway, Publix, Tyson Foods, Kroger, and Giant Foods, have found the concerns about infusing meat with carbon monoxide worrisome enough to stop stocking the product. Carbon monoxide-infused packaging already has been banned in the European Union; Canada prohibits it for wrapping fish; and Singapore doesn’t allow it with fresh tuna. And, in the US House of Representatives, the Energy and Commerce Committee has held several meetings this year to address concerns about this issue, while a bill has been introduced requiring a safety notice on meat, seafood, and poultry using carbon monoxide packaging.
Meanwhile, the FDA has taken no action to date. According to Consumer Affairs News, “The FDA accepted the practice under its, ‘Generally Recognized As Safe’ self-affirming procedure, meaning that the FDA conducted no independent safety investigations on its own, but instead relied on industry claims, research, and documentation.” (And yet again with the warm and fuzzy feeling.)
The FDA says it isn’t required to investigate products that “fix” color; only those that alter color, and carbon monoxide simply fixes that red shade that meat starts out with. Kalsec, Inc. insists that carbon monoxide certainly is an additive and that the FDA has acted illegally by allowing products treated with it to go to market. While the argument gets tossed back and forth, consumers continue to buy healthy-looking (but nevertheless rancid, slimy) meat — unknowingly. I can’t help thinking that allowing retailers to put a slick sheen on spoiled product is like endorsing the used car lot that takes a wreck and paints it up to look all slick and shiny and then sells it as a gem though it won’t make it around the block. As the ancient Romans used to say, “Buyer, beware.”