We Asked For Meat and He Gave Us Carbon Monoxide

There were three articles about food in the July 2006 Consumer Reports. Well, four really, if you you include the one on best restaurant chains. Which I won’t. I’m not sure if it is a new thing for CR to write about food, because my husband (who is in need of a nickname for this site) and I started subscribing about a month ago, so this is only our second issue. There was an article about mercury levels in fish (which deserves a separate post), and about how chocolate may have health benefits (c’mon Hershey, quit paying people to say they are paying for this research) and one about meat-packaging.
By far the most alarming is the CR Health article titled “Seeing red: Spoiled meat may look fresh.” Factory-wrapped (or case-ready) meat, uses a process called modified atmosphere packaging (nice, huh?), or MAP, in which the oxygen in the package is replaced with “other gases,” which includes carbon monoxide. According to the article, the gases then “react with the pigment in meat, producing a red color.” Meats packaged with these gases can then benefit from an extended shelf life — from 14 days to 28 days for ground beef, and from 10 days to 35 days for whole cuts.

If you’re anything like me, you are very paranoid about spoiled food, most likely due to a combination of cautionary tales from your parents (aunts dying of botulism, salmonella in the mayo at Sizzler etc) and cautionary tales from your local news channel (amount of bacteria in a sample refrigerator, countertop, etc). Of course, cautionary tales do come from somewhere. In the case of food, I think that cautionary tales reflect a larger anxiety: We have no idea how most of our food is made, stored, and/or prepared. Not to mention the precarious validity of USDA and FDA requirements.

Indeed, according to the article, the FDA determined in July 2004 that the use of carbon-monoxide packaging was harmless. Kalsec, a company in Kalamazoo, Michigan which advocates the use of (their) Herbalox seasoning in lieu of modified atmosphere packaging, petitioned the FDA last November to ban carbon monoxide for the use of meat packaging. FDA is still reviewing the petition.

CR did a little testing on the meat to see if it would still look pretty when it was actually totally nasty and chock-full of bacteria. Oh yeah, and there are absolutely no regulations which require manufacturers that use MAP to label food accordingly, so CR had to actually call them to verify their methods.

Out of ten samples tested from three companies, it was discovered that the meat did indeed appear red and tasty even if it was spoiled or had alarmingly high bacterial counts. One package remained red eight weeks after its sell-by date.

So, what to do? CR says you should ask your grocer whether or not they sell MAP products, don’t eat slimy meat, and don’t eat meat that smells bad. Yes, all good advice. I know some small farms are forced to have their beef processed at a USDA-approved facility. I will be visiting Ross Farm in Granger, TX next week to find out if her grass-fed beef are pastured and raised organically, only to end up gassed in production.

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