Should Artificially Colored Meat Have A Warning Label?

Over a year and a half ago, we alerted readers to the sneaky practice of using carbon monoxide to indefinitely preserve raw meat’s red color—several stores admitted to the practice, and while the small amount of gas used does not pose a health risk, the perma-red meat can make it harder to detect spoilage. Now, in the wake of so many food and product safety scandals, the government has proposed a new mandatory warning label as part of the Food and Drug Import Safety Act of 2007. It would read:

Carbon monoxide has been used to preserve the color of this product. Do not rely on color or the ‘use or freeze by’ date alone to judge the freshness or safety of the product. Discard any product with an unpleasant odor, slime, or a bulging package.

Unfortunately, a past movement to end the practice was scuttled by the meat industry, according to an editorial in USA Today:

In April 2004, the Department of Agriculture declared that this sort of packaging “could potentially mislead consumers into believing they are purchasing a product that is fresher or of greater value than it actually is and may increase the potential for masking spoilage.” But the industry fought back, and little more than a month later, the USDA reversed itself, citing industry data and declaring that such packing “will not mislead consumers.”

According to the editorial, Safeway has stopped selling meat that’s been treated in this manner, and Target is now the only national chain that still sells CO-packaged meat. However, there is no available industry data on which regional chains carry it, but “the industry says it’s widely available nationally.”

(Thanks, Fred!)

“Our view on food safety: When you buy red meat, looks can be deceiving” [USA Today]

Summary of bill, with label warning on page 5 (pdf document)
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. backspinner says:

    Nanny State! Nanny State! Bring on the spoiled meat!

    (yay, I win!)

  2. ceejeemcbeegee is not here says:

    It amazes me that this is even a question.

    “Hey consumer! Do you want to know if that red meat is really fresh red or kinda mad-cow brown?”

    The corners we cut at the expense of our health in the country is just mind-boggling.

  3. royal72 says:

    why on earth would you waste everyone’s money from the tax payers, to the sellers, to ultimately customers who will certainly pick up the extra packaging cost? we already know the masses don’t give a damn and as long as it’s cheap they’ll keep on buying it (ie: walmart and super-size chain grocery stores).

    before you all hose me with your flame throwers my friends, think about it. you go to the “healthy food” store to buy a steak. you look in the case to find big pieces of somewhat dull looking meat, with some edges picking up a hint of brown, and they cost twice as much as the cheap supermarket down the street. are you really gonna buy it?

  4. Techguy1138 says:

    I remember reading the first part of “the Jungle” where dye was used to cover up the color of meat. I don’t see how this is any different.

  5. urban_ninjya says:

    Hmm.. all those lables are so small. I can barely see the price on these meats. I guess they would put in on the back, but in my experience fumbling over the meat packing leads to bloody mess in your hands.

    I also do rely on color to tell freshness. I can’t be expected to open the package and smell the meat. I can maybe poke it, but again /w the bloody mess I don’t want on my hands.

  6. WTRickman says:

    huh huh…. they said ‘bulging package’ huh huh

    I digress… What other reason is there to color meat than to deceive a consumer in to buying a non-fresh product…

    I think the FDA should have outlawed the practice.

  7. @urban_ninjya: That’s my problem with this practice–pretty much EVERYONE uses color to help them determine “freshness” when purchasing meat. It’s not just a cosmetic issue, like waxed and colored apples. Keeping meat red indefinitely screws up a basic indicator, however unscientific, of the quality of the product.

  8. bohemian says:

    Hyvee stores in the midwest went to this crap last year. They teamed up with Hormel and started selling almost all of their beef in the Co2 packaging. They were promoting it as being of higher quality due to the deep red color.
    I frequently find packages of turkey cuts in the Co2 packs that look like they are going to explode.

    I refuse to buy it. We get our beef either from a local custom meat cutter or buy it from a smaller store chain that cuts and wraps their own beef in the store still.

    This stuff needs to be labeled. So does artificially colored seafood.

  9. ceejeemcbeegee is not here says:

    @royal72: In a word, abso-frickin-lutely. Some things are worth the extra price. I can sacrifice my Coach purse habit for some fresh, quality food. My health trumps my pocketbook, always.

    Besides, I’ve never see a cut of meat at Whole Foods that had brown edges.

  10. overbysara says:

    also farm-raised salmon are artificially colored by feeding them a dye that tends to remain in flesh.


  11. alice_bunnie says:

    I don’t care about the carbon monoxide really. However, the places that normally sell like that (Walmart, Target) usually have the little disclaimer that the meat is “enhanced with up to 12% solution”. I don’t really need my meat watered down, nor do I care to pay $5/lb for water. :/

  12. SOhp101 says:

    Wait, so what does CO2 packaged meat packaging even look like?

  13. hudsong says:

    It’s CO.
    Mono Oxide – One oxygen.

  14. SOhp101 says:

    My apologies, i was thinking CO but wrote CO2… so is there an actual difference between the packaging of meat treated with CO vs regular meat?

    I saw a picture of Costco meat in a USAToday article regarding this subject… just an FYI but even if their meat is treated with CO, it turns brown right on/very close to the expiration date.

    Does anyone know of any pics online showing CO treated meat?

  15. Bunnymuffin says:

    This practice poses a serious risk to people like my mother that for whatever reason have lost the ability to smell or taste their food. The only way for her to determine the safety of her food is through visual inspection. At least with the labeling she’d be able to know that there is a greater risk of food poisoning with the carbon monoxide meat than with the normal browns around the edges meat.

  16. guroth says:

    Imagine if they did this to bananas, and they stayed yellow forever.

    You could crack open a banana and have it ooze out onto the floor.

  17. hoo_foot says:

    My family isn’t the least bit religious, but this is why we buy our meat from either the local Kosher market or Halal deli. Given that most of the meat is going to people who eat it for religious reasons, there’s a better chance that these stores they will take more pride and care in their product better than Wal-Mart or the average mega-supermarket.

    It’s certainly not a foolproof method, but I have better luck finding tastier, fresher meat this way than I do at my chain supermarket.

  18. royal72 says:

    @ceejeemcbeegee: you abso-frickin-lutely kick ass!

  19. FMulder says:

    wait, what was that question?

    Shouldn’t artificially colored meat be an ‘opt-in’ type thing?

  20. HungryGrrl says:

    @guroth: ew. Reminds me of the grocery store scene in 28 Days Later, “mmm, irridated!”

  21. CurbRunner says:

    “Should Artificially Colored Meat Have A Warning Label?”
    Damned right it should.
    Farmed Salmon is required to be labeled that color is added, why should land raised meat be any different?

  22. uricmu says:

    Actually, because Kosher meat has the traces of blood taken out of it in the salting process, it becomes extremely gray and there’s more of a tendency to replace it with icolor. Especially in strict-kosher meat used in chassidic areas because families there have to go for quantity, not quality.

  23. Keter says:

    @CEEJEEMCBEEGEE – Actually, I quit buying meat from the Whole Foods in Austin because I was tired of having meat go bad within two days of purchase. They DO gas the meat, and it is tough and inferior and occasionally full of water; don’t let the price fool you. I’ve been buying Nolan Ryan brand from my neighborhood Super S, and it turns gray on the edges, so it’s not gassed…it’s also really good, properly tender meat that has no water added.

  24. ceejeemcbeegee is not here says:

    @Keter: In truth, fresh and natural food is supposed to go bad within a few days. That’s what preservatives do: prolong the shelf-life of food. The fewer preservatives, the sooner it will spoil.

    Yeah, it’s a pain in the butt to visit the market every 3-days for fresh meat and produce but it’s SO worth it to have preservative-free, farm-raised, no-hormone having food. I find I save money, time, and calories by buying something to cook within a day or two.

  25. ceejeemcbeegee is not here says:

    @royal72: Gracias!

  26. Benny Gesserit says:

    “Discard any product with an unpleasant odor, slime, or a bulging package.”

    Great Zod, are there people who actually NEED to be told things like this?

    Who was it that once said we should “take down all the warning signs and let nature take it course”?

  27. magus_melchior says:

    @Jim (The Canuck One): Yes. Yes, there are people who think “Eh, I’ll just burn it and eat it with wasabi.”

  28. FLConsumer says:

    @SOhp101: Not true… if meat’s been treated with CO, the hemoglobin within the meat bonds to CO more readily than CO2 (this is how carbon monoxide poisoning happens in humans). The heme molecule contains four iron(Fe) atoms, and this is what gives blood it’s characteristic red colour when exposed to oxygen. It’s generally considered an IRREVERSIBLE reaction.

    One of the Florida TV stations did a less-than-scientific study on this subject a few years ago and they did show that the meat stays red even after it’s spoiled. Red, red, red…even if it was left out in the sun for 2 days, past its expiration date, etc. Keep in mind that the red color DOES NOT mean the meat’s shelf life is extended in terms of food safety, just that it looks prettier. Absolutely NO effect on the decomposition of the meat nor the microbes contained therein.

    I refuse to buy gassed meat. One of the local supermarket chains here still does their meat packing in-store, no gasses used.

    @hoo_foot: I never considered it, but that’s a damn good idea. I’ll definitely give it a try.

  29. SOhp101 says:

    @FLConsumer: I was talking specifically about Costco meat, not CO treated meat in general. An article happened to have a picture of Kirkland Signature meat–and they do most of their meat packing in-store.

  30. asscore says:

    This is gross, how about instead of a warning label outright ban the practice!

    This is why I go to my friendly, knowledgeable neighborhood butcher.

  31. ppiddyp says:

    Yet another reason to buy good meat from a real butcher. A long time ago I decided that if I ever got to the point where I was buying cheap beer, I was probably drinking too much beer. I think the same is true of meat.