Carbon Monoxide In Fresh Meat Packaging

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The huge meat processing and packaging companies, Hormel and Cargill, went before Congress in Washington, D.C. this week to defend the practice of adding carbon monoxide to the meat packaging process. The process retards the discoloration that can occur as packaged red meat sits in the meat case, unsold.

The idea of adding gases to meat packaging is not new. There are numerous U.S. patents, some many years old for various methods of doing this. The different methods use different gases to accomplish the same thing, keep meat looking pink and fresh, no matter how old it might be. The following quote is from a registered patent that is several years old.

“A process for preserving the color of red meat, which entails contacting the meat with an effective amount of an atmosphere selected from the group consisting of a noble gas, a mixture of noble gases and a mixture containing at least one noble gas and a carrier gas, the noble gas in the mixture with the carrier gas being selected from the group consisting of argon, neon, xenon and krypton and being present in said mixture in an amount of greater than about 10% by volume.”

There is very little debate about the reasons the meat companies want to use gases to preserve meat color. The meat industry spends a lot of money re-wrapping fresh meat to preserve its appearance for consumers. The industry also loses a considerable sum every year because of discolored meat that must be discounted in order to sell or sometimes discarded. There is also almost no scientific debate about the safety of adding carbon monoxide or other gases to meat packaging. The process is generally accepted as safe for the consumer. Many scientists and food safety officials claim that meat appearance has never been an accurate indicator of whether red meat is good or not. They say consumers need to watch the dates on the meat packages and use that in their buying decisions. The consumer advocates that are being vocal on the issue seem to have the same concerns that they have about irradiated meat, namely that the meat should be labeled if it is treated by carbon monoxide. The meat companies are strongly opposed to the labeling idea. They feel that consumers will choose not to purchase meat treated with a gas commonly associated with the exhaust system of their cars, even if there is no health risk involved.

Interestingly, a search of the Hormel web site turns up no references to carbon monoxide. A search of the Cargill site does find 2 PDF’s and a web page that mention carbon dioxide, but none of these have anything to do with the packaging of meat. Rather they are related to emissions from their meat packing plants.

The discussion about whether the procedure should be allowed really appears to be falling into two categories. The first, as with most things in Congress, is political. The second involves the perceived deception of consumers.

The political debate is interesting, even though it is cloaked in the idea of food safety. The argument in Congress is between Hormel and Cargill who wants to use the carbon monoxide process and Kalsec Foods, a competitor that wants to use its own patented rosemary extract that colors red meat, making it appear to keep its pink color in the grocery store meat department. Each side has “employed” their state’s congressional representatives to fight for their cause. Re-election campaign contributions galore to the winning congressional representatives!

The deception debate is also heated. One congressman sat at a table piled with year old red meat that still had its “fresh” pink color intact. He stated that “the sole purpose” of the carbon monoxide packaging process is to deceive consumers, making them think that the red meat they are considering purchasing is fresher than it truly is. I think he even used the words “old” and “decayed”. The problem with his argument is two-fold. He is a representative from the district that is home to the company wanting to use their own rosemary extract method. Also, in order for meat sellers to sell “old”, “decaying”, meat, they would have to falsify the dates on the packages of meat. As long as the date labeling system is kept intact as it is, using gas to preserve color should not result in “bad” meat being sold.

Except, perhaps, when you dine out, you can avoid this whole debate by purchasing meat more purposefully in the first place. Buy local if possible. Organic Beef is becoming more available, so consider that alternative. These options are often more expensive, but as more of us reduce our consumption of meat, our average budget for meat purchasing should not really increase.

There are meat preservation processes that might not require congressional hearings that I am more concerned about. Some companies are funding research to determine if injecting chemicals into meat can preserve its shelf life. One group of researchers are trying to determine if protection against pathogens that grow in aging meat might be achieved by packaging meat injected with potassium lactate and sodium diacetate. This is not a method to “preserve” meat in the traditional sense. It is a method that would be used solely to extend the shelf life of “fresh” meat.

With issues like this in the meat industry, I think we have limited choices. One choice is to reduce your meat consumption overall. Another is to buy only organically grown meat. I just bought an organic Thanksgiving turkey. It was 50% more expensive than the conventionally produced birds, but it was humanely raised in a “free range” environment and not injected with hormones or antibiotics. Please consider doing the same for your Thanksgiving dinner.

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Will Sig
1 JD Thomas

This falls into one of those situations where Congress over-complicates things.

The question, as I see it:
“Does the store/industry use means that are not used by or known to the home cook to alter any attribute of the product?”

If yes, then “Is this harmful or risky for the consumer?”

If it is, then the practice should be banned, if it is not, then the product should just be labeled to let the consumer know that this process has been used on this particular package of meat.

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2 Bob

Thanks again for a very informative post, wasn’t aware of the carbon monoxide, for some reason I had it in my mind it was carbon dioxide, and I just bought a turkey today, I never even thought of getting an organically grown turkey, I’ll have to look around next time.

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3 Will

Hi JD! The answer to your first question would be yes if the meat industry gets its way. That is because, even though the answer to your second point seems to no, the meat industry does not want labeling.

Sarcasm on)They are afraid of the “naive” consumer picking up a package of meat labeled as being preserved by carbon dioxide and saying “what the…, I’m not buying that! (sarcasm off)

This same issue comes up with the irradiation of meat. Even though the actual process may not be dangerous to the consumer eating the meat, the meat industry does not want the radiation word on their packages. In this case also they are afraid of that same “naive” consumer being able to make a choice as to what they want to bring home to their family.

-Will

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4 Will

Bob: You are not confused about the carbon dioxide. That has been researched and proposed for use in meat sales also. I think it is mainly for use in the environment that unwrapped meat is kept in For example, the meat locker, or the butchers display case.

What I can find on it indicates that carbon dioxide greatly slows down the loss of water from meat. As one of the companies championing the use of CO2 says:

“The CO2 Technologies system releases H2O and CO2 into the refrigerated environment. Lean meat is about 75% water. Loss of water is important because it is economically equivalent to the loss of meat. By raising the relative humidity in the case, the dehydration that occurs is reduced. Food scientists agree that meat cuts lose their color prematurely relative to their wholesomeness, and by modifying the air with the introduction of carbon dioxide to displace oxygen, our CO2 Technologies system will stop this premature discoloration.”

-Will

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5 JD Thomas

The meat industry should have the guts to try educating consumers rather than fearing that consumers aren’t smart enough to understand the meanings of terms and processes. But thats asking a lot of an industry that sued Oprah Winfrey for swearing off hamburgers.

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6 Anna

Will, usually when I see really red meat to me it is something wrong. Please correct me if I am wrong, but when you look at your vains they are purple, and when you cut one (please don’t, this is just an example, lol), the blood turns into nice red color, due to reaction with oxygen. So to me red meat is actually artificial, and the more purple colored the it is more real. For example, if you have few steaks stack up, they are usually red outside and more purple darker color inside. I could be wrong, but to me it makes sense.
Anyway, my sister once worked in chicken packaging place, and she told me never eat frozen chicken again, she couldn’t believe how much of fillers they were adding including some gases to for packaging.
Anna 🙂

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7 Kaitlyn

Anna,

I am in a meat science class currently and there are different chemical reactions that happen when myoglobin is exposed, or taken out of different gases (types of air). The purple color is formed because of a compound called de-oxymyoglobin. This happens when oxygen is not allowed to bond with the meat ie. vacuum packaging. Brown color in meat is caused by metmyoglobin which is in a sense saying with surface is oxidized. So when meat is “really red” generally it means the meat has been shipped in vacuum bags then allowed to “bloom” (bind with oxygen) and turn red naturally before being packaged in traditional packaging.

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8 JD Thomas

Anna, my sister-in-law spent a year working at a turkey processing plant and she said the same thing about eating turkey lunch meat or other non-whole turkey products.

Her last job there was a promotion to food safety inspector and she went through extensive training for the job and she learned a lot of stuff that made her more comfortable with the safety guidelines. However, when she started her actual job on the line she found out that if she flagged stuff as unsafe or obeyed about 90% of the rules she was taught, her job would be in jeopardy. That was the catalyst for her eschewing turkey and leaving the industry.

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9 Will

Whew! Back, (for a few minutes at least), from a long weekend of basketball games, hockey games, piano recitals, choir concerts, and more! This is a busy time of year.

I can’t believe you both have relatives that worked in poultry processing plants. Reminds me of the old saying about watching sausage get made.

JD: So basically they were holding training sessions, that probably were required, to make sure employees knew about safety, sanitation, etc. Then they would pressure them to ignore what they were taught if they wanted to keep their jobs? This is a family friendly site, so I can’t really say what I think about that!

Anna: That is a good point about the color. I think the turn to red is instant upon contact with air, so it might not indicate anything about the freshness of the meat. Linda Prout has commented on a couple of posts and indicated that grass Finnish grass fed meat and dairy are best. I am going to look at her site and a couple others to learn more about that.

-Will

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10 WES BOLDT

Our business suffers because of inaccurate reporting and consumer ignorance. When the carbon monoxide articles first started to appear regarding using this in packaged red meat, we got calls saying their companies had to stop using our products. The chemistry symbol for carbon monoxide is CO. We produce a CO2 vapor that is a natural gas in the atmosphere. It is safe and an anti microbial gas, and necessary for life form on our planet.

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11 Howard

Hi

here are my two cents on the situation. What i feel is that if we can afford it we should prefer organic or local meat. This puts less fatigue on our environment and our bodies. The so called preservatives should be allowed in meat packaging as long as they are not harmful. The argument by one congressman that the discoloration did not happen is really dumb because i do not feel that something should be ridiculed just because its doing the work that it is supposed to do. What should be emphasized is that the dates on the packaging are temper proof so that no one is fooled into buying something that is not fresh

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12 Refrigerated Display Cases

You are right. We do have limited options, but it is our responsibility to purchase responsibly. Every dollar is one vote.

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13 Packaging Crazy

Wow I had no idea this kind of thing went on. To put poisonous gases in our food, that’s crazy. The meat packaging industry has gone mad! I agree that people where possible should try to buy local produce, atleast you will get quality fresh meet and will be also supporting your local farmers.

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14 Natalie

Happily for us meat-eaters, there’s a Wyoming certified organic, grassfed beef ranch, whose beef is not only tender and delicious…it’s the real deal. Cattle graze on omega-3 rich grasses, never see a feedlot, nor are they fed grains (which cows can’t tolerate, it turns out), or chemicals. Rocky Mountain Organic Meats ships frozen meat to anyone, anywhere. The meat is perfectly frozen when it reaches me, and I transfer every package from shipping container to my freezer. Their meat is safe, and did I already say it’s delicious? http://www.rockymtncuts.com

I write about organic food at examiner.com

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15 Will

Thanks for that Natalie. Of course once you pay for shipping the cost of that beef is close to 25.00 per pound. Seems like that is a bit too high as it is 3 or 4 times conventional prices. I have looked locally for grass fed beef directly from ranchers. But all the ones I have found so far put their cattle on grain for the last couple of weeks, claiming that is what all their customers want.

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16 Natalie

The added cost of shipping does raise the per-pound cost BUT, and it’s a big one for me, isn’t our health worth it? It comes down to our priorities, what’s really important. I refuse to buy meat produced in unhealthy feedlots, so the choice is made for me. If you’re interested, check out Rocky Mountain Organic Meats at http://www.rockymtncuts.com. They have a flat shipping rate, and they have sales, just like conventional stores. Their cattle are graze-only; no grain-feed finishing. (They also Twitter. http://www.twitter.com/grassfedorganic)

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17 Sumas Mountain Farms

I enjoyed your post. If I may, I would like to suggest my farm web site.

Sumas Mountain Farms is the only producer of 100% certified-organic, lifetime grass-fed & finished beef in the Lower Mainland of BC (near Vancouver, Canada). We also offer chicken, eggs, pepperoni, jerky, salami, sausage, farmer sausage, steak and more.

Because our beef is 100% grass-fed & finished, the quality of the meat is exceptional, and the flavor is unsurpassed. Plus, it is more nutrient-dense and packed with healthful Omega-3’s than conventional beef, which is healthier for you, your family, and the planet.

Please visit http://www.sumasmountainfarms.ca/ for more information! We have plenty of recipes for you to try.

Thanks.

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18 Brashna kasi

It was 2ooooooo boring…………but still it helped me a lot in my assignment!!!……

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19 Ruth

Carbon Monoxide in our meat, GMOs in our produce and processed foods, what poisonous ideas will the food industry come up with next? 🙁
.-= Ruth´s last blog ..Late Earth Day Post — The Evil of GMOs =-.

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20 Will

Hi Ruth – I could think of about 20 more that the mega food giants have already come up with. It is too scary to think of what might be next!

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21 Ruth

Check this out sometime….

http://www.doomers.us/forum2/index.php/topic,65802.0.html

I’ve only watched the first video on that link so far, but someone on there said they found proof that Monsanto and other companies like it are poisoning our food _on purpose_ in order to depopulate the planet. IIRC from what she said it’s some sort of government-backed plot (supposedly that’s why the gov’t is working so slowly to stop them, see?). Why? Who knows? Supposedly, according to either Monsanto’s own calculations or a government report (I don’t remember which), three million people are going to die in the next couple decades, the first million from outright starvation and the other two from malnutrition. Apparently this is part of the reason the government is insisting that GMOs are “not substantially different” from natural foods, even though there are studies and tons of anecdotal evidence proving otherwise.

As someone said in an article I read recently, GMOs are like the financial crisis, the only difference is we can live without money!

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22 Will

Hi Ruth – thanks for that link. There is a lot of interesting stuff there. My personal opinion though is to be very careful about getting caught up in the vast conspiracy theories that some people post about. I don’t find the specific comment you are referring to so if you can find your way back to it, please post the direct link here. Maybe the site’s authors took that specific comment down. I would be interested in reading it though. I am in the middle of a post on this very subject since this week I received a ling email from someone wanting me to read and write about a few of these conspiracy theories. I think I will include this one in my post also.

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23 James

Definitely an interesting topic here. As long as stores are properly dating the meat and not trying to sell it w/ a newer date to deceive customers, then using gases to preserve meats and other perishables longer seems like a much better alternative.

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24 Harold Altman

God’s original diet for man is the healthiest, and can be found in Genesis 1:29. It is the Garden of Eden diet, which is meatless. I read on the internet that meat is linked to cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes and other life threatening sickness. All life is sacred,. Animals are sentient, intelligent beings. I truly believe that all animals have a legitimate God-given right to live out their lives in peace and harmony. To love all animals is the most noble attribute of man. All human beings should request a free vegetarian kit from choose veg.com or veg.com.

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25 Dr. AN

The problem here (as in many other areas like banking etc.) is one of inadequate regulations (or deregulation since 1980). These mega farms and retailers have a larger carbon footprint and destroy local producers. Having said that, the term “Organic” or “all natural” has been abused and is very misleading. Scientifically, I have done testing of products and found a very mixed correlation and claims are made without data. Wild conspiracy theories have become popular and logic is thrown out. Monsanto like other corporations want to make money, but the depopulation claim is absurd. All agriculture is by definition GMO, as it involves cross breeding/grafting and the wild type is never consumed. I do think however that new GMO foods are safe but should be monitored as they are new. As the original post points out, we should reduce consumption (of everything). The solution can only be achieved by new anti-trust laws, break up large entities and overturn Citizens United. This way small and medium sized businesses (easier to regulate) get a level playing field and overall employment and wages will go up. Bail outs will not be needed, meaningless defense budgets can be cut and environmental clean up easier.

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