Carbon monoxide in meat products 'deceptive', say consumers

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Most consumers are concerned about the use of carbon monoxide to
meats, according to a new survey, which rekindles an ongoing debate
between industry and consumer groups.

Conducted for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), the new survey reveals that almost 80 percent of American consumers find the practice to be "deceptive".

"Consumers are quite simply concerned about the addition of carbon monoxide to meat packaging,"​ said Chris Waldrop, deputy director of the Food Policy Institute at CFA. "The FDA needs to halt this practice immediately."

Carbon monoxide is often used in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) as a packaging technique for maintaining food quality.

The MAP method works by replacing the air with a mixture of inert gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The package is then heat sealed. The low-oxygen mix extends the shelf-life of the meat, vegetables and other perishable foods by up to 15 days from the normal five days, a big plus at a time when the market is working to ensure food safety and extend their markets.

However, carbon monoxide is said to make meat appear fresher than it actually is by reacting with the meat pigment myoglobin to create carboxymyoglobin, a bright red pigment that can mask the natural aging and spoilage of meats.

The new survey indicates that 63 percent of American adults believe that the freshness of meat is directly related to its color, but according to CFA, "by extending the bright red color of meat for several weeks longer than untreated meat, carbon monoxide masks the true color of the meat and consumers are unable to accurately determine if the meat is fresh."

Almost 70 percent of consumers also said they would support a law to make it mandatory that meat treated with CO be labeled.

Under current US regulation, processors do not have to indicate on the label that their meat products have been treated with carbon monoxide. And while the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the practice as safe for use in 2004 in response to requests from two food companies, the EU prohibits food companies from using carbon monoxide.

In recent months, a bill was drafted by Representative Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut, which would outlaw "carbon monoxide in any meat or meat food products or the packaging of any meat or meat food products."

"The sole purpose of this practice is to deceive consumers into purchasing and potentially eating meat that looks fresh, but could be spoiled,"​ said DeLauro. "Ground beef treated with carbon monoxide still could have the appearance of being fresh months after its 'sell-by' date. Consumers often do not know until they open the package at home and smell its contents that the meat has spoiled."

But CO advocates have railed against this and similar fiery rhetoric. Last month, the American Meat Institute (AMI) announced the results of two studies that highlighted the benefits of CO meat packaging.

In July, scientists at the University of Georgia contaminated meat samples with E coli and packed them in a packaging that contained small amounts of carbon monoxide. A control sample was packed in traditional packaging without using MAP. When left in an environment of 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), meat packaged without MAP technology had almost 12 times as many E. coli cells.

"I don't think that carbon monoxide packaging is a deceptive process at all, certainly not from a safety standpoint,"​ said Mike Doyle, Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

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