Supermarkets Treat Meat with Carbon Monoxide-Truth! & Fiction!
Summary of eRumor:
Supermarkets are sealing meat in airtight packages treated with carbon monoxide to help meat keep its bright red color for weeks.
It’s true that supermarkets and food processors regularly package meat (and many more foods) with carbon monoxide to preserve the product’s freshness and color.
But related claims that carbon monoxide in meat packaging allows products to be sold when they’re no longer fresh, and that packages aren’t clearly labeled, are false.
Rumors about supermarkets treating meat with carbon monoxide started circulating in 2006, which happens to be around the time that meat processors and supermarkets began using what’s referred to as modified atmosphere packaging, or MAP.
The American Meat Institute says that packaging meat with carbon monoxide has been in use in the U.S. since 2006, and in Norway since about 1986, with no ill effects. Carbon monoxide added to the meat package eliminates oxygen, which leads to oxidation and loss of color in foods like meat and produce:
Red meat products are somewhat like sliced apples. Their color can change rapidly — even though the product is still safe and wholesome. In fact, retail stores oft en discount red meat products that have changed color but are still safe and wholesome — and well within their shelf life. These detrimental effects to foods, including apples and meat, are the result of chemical changes caused by oxygen. But by eliminating the oxygen from the package and adding minute amounts of carbon monoxide along with other protective gases to the headspace of the red meat packages, products like ground beef can maintain their appealing red color throughout their shelf life.
The FDA has classified carbon monoxide in food packaging systems as “generally recognized as safe.” The agency said that these MAP systems used to package meat often contain a mix of gases: carbon monoxide (0.4%), carbon dioxide (30%) and nitrogen (70%):
FSIS has no further questions regarding the suitability of the use of carbon monoxide, at levels up to 0.4 percent, in an inert atmosphere of helium, for treatment of fresh red meat products prior to vacuum packaging for retail. The meat sold using this packaging system must have a “Use by” date of 21 days after, directing the consumer to either use or freeze the contents by that date. In addition, to ensure that consumers are not misled about the freshness of meat treated with carbon monoxide, the statement “color is not an accurate indicator of freshness” is used in conjunction with the “use or freeze by date.”
So, it’s true that supermarkets package meat with small amounts of carbon monoxide to retain the product’s color for longer.
But it’s not true that it allows products to be sold when they’re no longer fresh (the sell by date was unchanged) and that the packages aren’t clearly labeled (packages say “color is not an accurate indicator of freshness), so this one is misleading, too.