Wine Dine and Play: Pretty In Pink - Carbon Monoxide In Meat

Pretty In Pink - Carbon Monoxide In Meat

By Sean Overpeck (CFE)
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It is time for you're weekly run to the grocery store and to pick up some items for your weekend barbecue party. You have your chips and dip, beer, hamburger and hot dog buns, and now it is time for the meat. 

Now if you are a foreigner and you visit the USA it is a mouth dropping shock, but to the average American shopper, it is nothing new. The brightest best-looking ground beef you can find at the cheapest price to make those hamburgers with, or even a bright red ribeye steak to grill is the one that Americans will buy. We are told that it is the best quality when its that color. But why is the meat so bright red? When I grew up and shopped with my parents they even told me to pick this meat over the brown colored meat. They told me that red was fresh and brown was old, and you can get sick from the older stuff. Besides that bright reed beef looks great as if it was just butchered that day doesn’t it? I Talk to a real butcher that owns a small shop competing with the big grocery store chains and he gave me a different story - a real story.

You will find that the meat was put into the big grocery display case days before if not longer. So how does it stay so red, bright, and beautiful? Most American consumers as I said earlier pay it no mind, while foreigners question it because, in most of their butcher grocery sections, they don’t see this. In America when you shop specifically at a small neighborhood butcher shop for your meats, then you know the story, and will not buy the grocery store meat on display. A small farm or a local butcher knows that this bright red meat is not a natural occurrence. Once meat becomes exposed to air, oxidation begins which gradually turns the red color of the meat to a more unappetizing brown or grey color within just a few days.

This never seems to happen to supermarket meat.  The meat is uniformly red, not various shades of red, brown and grey. The facts are as follows, 70% of the meat sold in stores is treated with carbon monoxide to keep the meat a deceptively fresh looking red color.

Carbon monoxide is identified by the chemical symbol CO -- it is a molecule consisting of one carbon atom and one oxygen atom. This gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless, flammable and poisonous. According to its material safety data sheet, inhaling carbon monoxide may cause damage to the blood, lungs, cardiovascular system and central nervous system. An exposure to as little as 6.4 percent CO can cause convulsions, loss of consciousness and death in 30 minutes.
The industrialized meat industry (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – CAFO) insists that treatment with carbon monoxide, called “modified atmosphere packaging” (MAP), is necessary due to the difficulty of keeping meat at the proper temperature while in grocery store coolers. Being in food service we know that meats need to be held at specific internal temperatures to avoid pathogens from growing and causing foodborne illnesses.  In the retail sector, meat is not supposed to exceed 39° Fahrenheit (4° Celsius) at any time. For restaurants, the ServSafe standard is 41° Fahrenheit (5° Celsius). An increase of just a degree or two can result in a massive increase in bacterial growth. 

This is where MAP came into play. The purpose of the MAP was to help manufacturers and packers/fillers of fruit and vegetables to choose the optimum packaging for their products to improve shelf life and quality of the product, as well as find a solution to the struggles of temperature consistency, and to reduce loss in the overall supply chain. It was invented in the 1970s rolling off of the use of Controlled Atmosphere Storage (CAS) which has been used from the 1930s by freighter ships transporting goods. Now, Equilibrium modified atmosphere packaging (EMAP) instead of MAP. When packaging vegetables and fruits, the gas atmosphere of the package is not air (O2 21%; CO2 0.038%; N2 78%) but consists of a lowered level of O2 and a heightened level of CO2. This kind of package slows down the normal respiration of the product to prolong its shelf-life. According to a Danish report, this process for temperature and packaging reduces aging of fruit and vegetables and can slow the degradation down and increase shelf life by more than 800%.

When meat is exposed to carbon monoxide, it reacts with the myoglobin in the blood giving the meat a bright red color. Fresh beef is naturally red, and as it ages, it becomes brown or grey. The carbon monoxide keeps it looking artificially fresh for up to a full year by restricting the growth of bacteria that proliferate from the increased heat of supermarket meat display cases, transportation, and temperature variation. How do you feel about that McDonald’s cheeseburger now?

In Russia and other European countries, some US meat products have been banned because we use this process, but also because what companies are actually pumping inside the meats. This report is from 2014 when Russia banned the meat because of a product inside it called Ractopamine, and approved use in pigs in 1999, cattle in 2003 and turkeys in 2009. This led in 1999 to some European countries banning the meat because it was labeled as being hormone free, but tests on the meat showed otherwise. Ractopamine is a growth-promoting drug which increases muscle mass by actively slowing protein degradation. According to the article linked in the previous sentence, other veterinary drugs which are withdrawn prior to slaughter, ractopamine is started and never withdrawn in the animal’s final days.  It is given to beef cattle during their last 4-6 weeks, pigs in their last 4 weeks, and turkeys for their last 1-2 weeks. So yes, that chicken breast you're buying at the grocery store, it's not supposed to be that size naturally. Cut it into three pieces, then you have a normal breast size for a slaughtered chicken. 

In 2004, a new three-gas mixture used for packaging of red meat cuts and ground beef products was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is gaining in popularity. This mixture is 0.4 percent carbon monoxide, 30 percent carbon dioxide and 69.6 percent nitrogen. However, in 2006 the FDA was urged to Ban Carbon-Monoxide-Treated Meat as more and more people were made aware of the process of MAP and EMAP.
According to the FDA and the American Meat Institute: “Meat treated with CO is safe to eat. CO is only hazardous if you breathe it, but once it is chemically combined with the meat it can't hurt you, so after you open a package of ground beef there will be few if any, molecules of CO to breathe.” That may be the case as both Governments funded and private funded scientists continue to research the issue, but in the end, do you want to eat meat that may be months old? The Health Science Institute wrote in 2006 that, “Adding carbon monoxide to meat is a really bad idea for one reason: When meat stays red, consumers could be fooled into thinking that old meat is fresh.’
So, as a consumer, you should always check the expiration date and not the looks. If the consumer forgot to check the expiration date or if the store were to make a mistake or cheat, the meat would still be obviously spoiled once the package was opened. I spoke to a butcher and asked his opinion on the process, and said to put the carbon treated meat onto a kitchen counter-top to thaw, then leave the house for one week and come back. When you do, nothing will have changed. Even though the meat has sat out for one week, it will still be bright pink. Then he said to try that with non-chemically treated beef and leave the house for one week. He said as you open the door to the house you will vomit from the horrid smell of rotted meat, and bugs will have infested the house.
These meats are also at a cheaper price point, so who buys them? Lower income and middle-class people. What does this do over time? The answers are not clear, but in the ned do you want chemically treated meats or GMO products? Or do you want fresh, sustainable, all-natural meats? No brainer for me. I would gladly pay a little extra to get a good quality product, instead of paying more money later on to the doctors to fix me and keep me alive before cancer rips me apart.
Other methods used by large meat processing plants besides MAP are chlorine baths where bacteria is killed and it controls slime and algae, increasing the products shelf life, plus it eliminates costly hand-cleaning labor and materials. In addition to disinfecting, wash down, and chilling of water. "Pinners" in the slaughter facility who remove the birds' feathers by hand, then wash their hands with the chlorinated water to reduce odors and bacterial count after which the birds are sprayed to wash all foreign material from the carcass. also, in a 2014 directive, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) admits the many uses of chlorine in poultry and meat production, are not required to be on the label under the "accepted conditions of use agreements.”
The next method is ammonia also known as "Pink Slime" pushed from processing tubes and sent to grocery stores and US schools in the form of chicken nuggets. Other examples include "lean, finely textured beef" (LFTB) which is made from unwanted beef "trim" and treated with puffs of ammonia gas to retard the growth of E. coli.
To conclude and make you aware if you are not already, so please check what you're buying especially if it is something you're going to eat. Do your research and check and recheck to make sure. For years it has been said that GMO’s are fine and safe, but as you dive deeper you find some serious problems with it. 
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“Culinary perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, 
But in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”
-Angelique Arnauld (1591-1661)

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