Carbon Monoxide-Treated Meat Is Here To Stay, For Now

In hearings today, the meat producers Hormel Foods Corp and Cargill Inc testified that the practice of treating meat with carbon monoxide to preserve its red color is safe and should be allowed. As a compromise, they suggested a label on all CO-treated meat and fish that reminded consumers to refer to the date on the package to determine its freshness. According to Reuters, “officials at the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Agriculture Department said they stand by the safety of the carbon monoxide practice and would revisit the process if new data becomes available.”

The consumer groups who originally called for a ban on the practice are not pleased:

“We’re outraged the FDA put the economic interest of the industry before the health and safety of consumers,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Food and Water Watch. “At worst (it’s) dangerous, at best it’s a consumer rip-off.”

Giant, Safeway Inc and Tyson no longer use CO to treat meat and fish. Target has continued the practice, but today they “asked USDA for approval to add a warning to the label of meat that has been treated with carbon monoxide sold in its stores.” We’re not sure about the contents of the label, but its likely to be similar to the “Use by this date” warning suggested by Hormel and Cargill.

Bottom line: unless you know for sure your store doesn’t use carbon monoxide on its meat, don’t equate color with freshness, because the practice isn’t going away any time soon.

“Food industry defends carbon monoxide use in meat” [Reuters]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. catnapped says:

    MMMMMM–gotta love that car exhaust flavor!

  2. ptkdude says:

    Is it just me or should we not rely upon the manufacturers’ claim that this is safe? It would be one thing for the FDA or the USDA to confirm the safety (except they’re probably in the manufacturers’ pockets), but this is like buying the undercoating because your car salesman said it was absolutely necessary.

  3. karmaghost says:

    @ptkdude:

    officials at the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Agriculture Department said they stand by the safety of the carbon monoxide practice and would revisit the process if new data becomes available.

    A.K.A., the FDA and USDA.

  4. Crazytree says:

    who cares about the CO2… it’s the hormones that will get you in the end.

  5. C2D says:

    @Crazytree: IT’S NOT CO2!

    REPEAT AFTER ME: CARBON MONOXIDE!

    It is COMPLETELY different from the gas that causes the greenhouse effect and what you exhale.

  6. dirtymoney says:

    I always hated this practice. It makes people think that the meat is fresher than it truely is. And about the whole “check the expiration date” excuse…. grocery stores have been known to change the expiration dates on meat they repackage themselves.

  7. mconfoy says:

    I would be surprised to see that it is harmful. We dye oranges orange and wax them along with other fruit. Seems that there would be more potential issues with that than this.

  8. XianZomby says:

    In grade school, a nun told us that common table salt is made from sodium and chlorine. Sodium, she said, “explodes when it comes in contact with water.” And chlorine gas, she said, “is a deadly poison.” One of the kids in class says, “well, I’m not eating salt ever again!” He ain’t taking no chances! Duh.

    I’m pretty sure the protocol for tinting meat with CO involves waiting for the excess gas to escape. And isn’t the color created by meat coming into contact with CO some sort of reaction? So there’s probably not any more free CO floating around in that steak than there is chlorine gas when you season it with Lowrey’s.

  9. trollkiller says:

    Use by the experation date sound all nice, but what happens when the meat is taken out of the cooler and left on the bread isle? How can I be sure it did not sit out all day and then get placed back in the cooler?

  10. Lee2706 says:

    I think the CO binds to myoglobin to make it look red; without it the meat turns brown (like how blood turns brown after exposure to air for too long).

    And that delicious seasoning salt is called Lawry’s – there are a few Lawry’s Prime Rib restaurants across the country. I wonder if they gas their meat to make it look redder longer throughout the service period….

  11. BigNutty says:

    Am I the only one that wonders who buys their meat at Target?

  12. courtarro says:

    How can the FDA accept a practice like this? There’s only one difference between meat infused with CO and meat that isn’t: it looks fresh when it isn’t. “Oh, just tell people to look at this little label we’re putting on the meat, next to the other 5 stickers that people also ignore.”

    This practice has one purpose: misleading customers into buying old meat so that stores can keep it moving from shelves. How can the FDA think that a new expiration label is going to counteract the prevailing behavior of customers to use color alone?

    Hopefully the emerging media coverage and the scary “carbon monoxide”-ness of the coloring will eventually lead to a consumer backlash against the practice, ’cause it’s apparent that our regulatory body isn’t up to the task.

  13. Sidecutter says:

    @BigNutty: There *are* things called Super Targets. Same concept as Super Wal-Mart, a grovery and GM store in the same building. Nothing at all strange about the idea of getting meat there.

  14. balthisar says:

    I have a more important question, pehaps the most important question here: since I don’t know if the steaks I myself buy are treated this way, I wonder what the effect of heat is on CO treated meat? Am I going to seriously overcook my steaks because they stay redder longer than usual?

    As for the rest of you, I don’t get it — who shops at stores that have such crappy turnover in their meat department that you’re at risk of them changing the sell-buy date on the meat? And doing so at further risk of attracting attention from local health departments? Not saying it doesn’t happen once in a blue moon, but what’s your actual risk? Oh, and do you pay extra for aged beef?

    Hygenically, there’s nothing particularly unsanitary about meat a few days past its sell-by date, especially if you cook it on the outside. If you cook it to the FDA-recommended temperatures, it’s (a) completely safe and (b) probably overcooked (but completely safe). That’s not to say I wouldn’t be pissed off and take it back if I found out this happened to me, only that it’s not the end of the world.

    Oh, and also that sell-by date is for “fresh” (usually meaning, only frozen once, and quick-frozen at that) meat. Once it hits its sell by date, some stores will freeze it and add a new sell-by date, and often give you a not insignificant discount.

    CO is a poison in the respect that it binds to your blood and prevents oxygen from binding there instead — you suffocate. But that’s only if it’s inhaled. It’s perfectly safe to eat.

  15. MeOhMy says:

    @catnapped: Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless…car exhaust smell comes from other byproducts.

    I’ve always used the sniff test on my meat. The nose nose. That said, I think this practice is stupid and potentially dangerous and there’s no reason to keep doing it.

  16. MeOhMy says:

    er…the nose knows

  17. Javert says:

    I have been out of chemistry for a while but what it seems that this is, is the equivalent of storing historic documents in argon. Oxygen is the enemy of everything as oxidation breaks down must about everything. It would seem that using CO in the process of packaging allows the packer to force out all of the O2 hence less oxidation and a better look. As such, the CO is not itself changing the colour of the meat but rather the lack of O2. Does this reflect the age of the meat or the potential for the build up of harmful bacteria…no. But they do put labels on meat with dates and other such information. Yes the color can be misleading but can the consumer not simply look to the date? Is this not something we all do? Am I just anal about such things? Is this an issue of natural selection and those of us with the ability to read will survive while those who choose food based upon colour will not?

  18. forever_knight says:

    @courtarro: agreed. the purpose behind this is to move more meat and make consumers think they are buying FRESH when it could be near or past the expiration date.

    in other words, the consumer loses. boo to this practice.

  19. ppiddyp says:

    Again, pay a little more and buy your meat from a real butcher. There is a reason that some of them are still in business. If you can’t afford it, just eat less damn meat.

    Wikipedia:
    “The CO combines with myoglobin to form carboxymyoglobin, a bright cherry red pigment. Carboxymyoglobin is more stable than the oxygenated form of myoglobin, oxymyoglobin, which can become oxidized to the brown pigment, metmyoglobin. This stable red colour can persist much longer than in normally packaged meat, giving the appearance of freshness.[9] Typical levels of CO used are 0.4% to 0.5%.”

    Not poisonous, but wicked gross.

  20. hi says:

    Harris Teeter does this or buys their meat like this. Carbon Monoxide is poison. Eating poison is bad for you especially if you do it over long periods of time. Like eating this meat 3 times a week for 10 years…

  21. SoCalGNX says:

    People who die from carbon monoxide poisoning (like bad heaters and those who use bbqs to heat their homes) have cherry red faces. Wonder why this would be considered safe to eat. Yeck!

  22. shanaynay says:

    @Troy F.: Yeah, the nose knows. But can YOU smell through plastic? I can’t.

    Add this to the list of reasons I’m vegetarian and still trying to convince my husband that meat is NOT necessary twice a day.

  23. Keter says:

    It would be more useful to compile a list of meat purveyors who do not CO their meat, so we can bring market pressure to bear by purchasing known non-COed meats. (You would think a smart marketer would start using this as a selling point.) I grill steaks at least once a week, so this is important information to me.

    Whole Foods, nonsensically, DOES CO and I’ve quit buying meat from them because of the number of times I opened a package only a day or two after purchase to find it spoiled, which means it was spoiled when I bought it but just didn’t look spoiled because of the gas.

    Last month, I bought a steak at Sun Harvest (part of the recent Whole Foods buyout of Wild Oats), where the meat department used to be ugly but wholesome, and ended up with a $9 steak that had a thick slab of fat covering the entire back side (invisible until I opened the package) — leaving not enough meat to make a meal for two. So, I’m no longer buying meat from them, either, since the Whole Foods cheating is now in place there, too.

    Nolan Ryan brand steaks (available at Super S) evidently does NOT CO…the steaks are often irregularly cut (properly trimmed!) and often have a little gray where the meat touches the plastic wrapper when purchased, yet remain fresh — if not pretty in pink — for several days after purchase. I haven’t “lost” a single one. They’re also much more tender and flavorful than steaks from Target or Whole Foods (probably because they are less fooled-around-with and are truly fresher), and are usually the same price or less.

  24. King of the Wild Frontier says:

    @xianzomby: heh, in grade school I had a teacher who threatened to tell us what sausage casings were made of. We called her bluff, and were all like “so what?” when she told us that animal intestines were used. I think that maybe she didn’t realize that, in a rural community where half the kids lived on farms and/or hunted deer with their dads and subsequently dealt with things like gut piles, intestines weren’t that gross, really.

  25. FLConsumer says:

    The butcher suggestion is the best one anymore. Then you know what the meat has/hasn’t had done to it and the local butchers here know what ranches do to their meat.

    They say they’re going to label it, but in what ways? If it was a decent size notice rather than mouseprint, I’d welcome this, as there isn’t currently any real notice about it. That said, I doubt these two companies were the only companies who tamper with the meat using CO.

    For those who think there’s nothing wrong with CO-treated meat, let me just remind you that the artificially red meat can’t tell you if it was mishandled (kept too warm, etc) along its trip like real meat would. That alone should concern you.