A recent Knight-Ridder Tribune editorial said when consumers reach for a package of meat at the supermarket, they shouldn’t have to wonder whether the product they’re about to take home and cook for their families has been treated to keep it looking fresh. Especially if it isn’t.
Treating packaged meat with carbon monoxide to maintain its marketable red color apparently is a widespread practice in the meat industry, but one we feel needs to be reconsidered.
Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas but supposedly is not dangerous in the minute quantities injected into meat packages. The gas reacts with the meat to keep it from turning brown and thus less attractive to shoppers. Industry spokesmen say the process saves the high cost of disposing of meat that is still perfectly safe but doesn’t look good, although some consumer advocates argue persuasively that it could mask dangerous spoilage.
A major loophole is that the carbon monoxide treatment is sanctioned, but not officially approved for safety, by the federal Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to be looking out for consumers.
The FDA allows the treatment under the bureaucratic shorthand GRAS – Generally Recognized As Safe – one of those disturbingly unhelpful government acronyms that raises more questions than it answers. Questions like “Says who?”
You won’t get the answer from the FDA, which concedes that it doesn’t vouch for the process and hasn’t done any independent testing to confirm that it is indeed safe. The agency simply takes the food industry’s word that it’s safe.
That’s not good enough.
Any gimmick that could mislead consumers into buying food that isn’t fresh has no place in the nation’s supermarkets. Moreover, if the FDA is going to allow the use of carbon monoxide on meat, it ought to go to the trouble, as it does with food additives, of testing its safety.
A protest has been lodged by the Consumer Federation of America, which complained in a letter to the FDA in January that the redness produced by carbon monoxide “has been found to last beyond the time of spoilage” and noting that “older meat is more likely to have higher levels of spoilage and pathogenic bacteria.”
We’re not in favor of needless regulation, but food safety is nothing to be trifled with. When it comes to meat, fresh means fresh.