Debate Heats Up Over Use of Carbon Monoxide to Keep Meat Looking Fresh

In the U.S., consumers often judge the freshness of food products by their appearance. Thus, many foods become unmarketable as soon as they begin to “look” old or stale.

Exposure to oxygen has the effect of discoloring many foods long before they become unsafe to eat. As a result, the food industry is forced to discount or throw away an enormous amount of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and poultry each year simply because they no longer appear to be fresh.

Consequently, when it was discovered that exposing meat to harmless levels of carbon monoxide would keep it looking fresh by preventing it from turning brown or some other unappetizing color, it was seen as a way to prevent up to a billion dollars a year in losses.

The meat industry was able to convince the FDA (without much prodding) that this use of carbon monoxide was not in the nature of a food additive or “colorant” but, rather, nothing more than a harmless “color (or ‘pigment’) fixative.”

In this way, the use of carbon monoxide was able to escape the rigorous FDA approval process applicable to food additives and simply be allowed, without objection from the agency, as a practice that is “generally recognized as safe.” This regulatory category allows companies to proceed with their plans without the need for formal FDA approval or public evaluation.

Thus, the process, which causes meat to stay bright pink for weeks, crept silently into the U.S. marketplace.

This, however, is only the beginning of the story for the practice is far from acceptable to consumer advocates, natural food extract makers, and many other countries.

In a 2001 report from the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food, the practice was seen as not being a risk as long as the treated meat was kept at acceptably cold temperatures that prevented microbial growth during transport and storage. The practice was banned in the European Union (EU) as a color stabilizer, however, because the presence of carbon monoxide “may mask visual evidence of spoilage.”

Consumer advocates see the practice as deceptive and one that prevents shoppers from using a meat product’s color as one of the indicators of possible spoilage. They argue that the FDA should have fully evaluated the practice in terms of its impact on consumer safety instead of merely permitting it to be implemented without objection.

Other opponents of the practice believe that, at the very least, meats treated with carbon monoxide should be labeled as such thereby alerting shoppers not to rely on the product’s appearance as an indicator of freshness.

In defense of the practice, the meat industry downplays the role of color as an accurate measure of freshness since meats tend to turn brown as a result of oxygen exposure long before spoilage occurs. In addition, there are numerous, and better, indicators of spoilage to look for such as odor, slime formation, bulging packages, and “sell or freeze by” dates on package labels.

Currently, it is unknown how widespread the practice is in the U.S. The FDA has, however, given three companies the OK to three companies to use the procedure under the “generally recognized as safe” category. They are Tyson Foods, Pactive Corp., and Precept Foods (which helped develop the process).

There is growing opposition to the practice and consumer groups are mounting challenges to the FDA’s acquiescence in it. A ban, similar to the one imposed by the EU, is being sought.

While meat-industry officials deny the claim that carbon monoxide is a “colorant” (which would require a full FDA review) and argue that the process simply helps meat retain its naturally red color, critics point out potential abuses that put the public’s health at risk.

For example, meat that has been exposed to unsafe temperatures due to improper refrigeration or mechanical breakdowns would be potentially dangerous to humans although it would appear fresh, not have the other signs of spoilage, and be well within sell or freeze by dates.

Inaccurate labeling (intentional or accidental) with respect to dating would also go undetected if the meat appeared to be bright red and fresh looking.

Industry officials, however, see the opposition as baseless since they say that it would be “ludicrous” for a company to use the process in a way that would deceive consumers and undermine the goal of assuring that only safe products make it to market.

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