The color of fresh meat is universally known: bright red. After a few days, the telltale brown color signals to consumers that the meat is getting old.
But carbon monoxide may change that.
When exposed to case-ready meat, the kind packaged before it gets to the store, the gas reacts with the meat's pigment to create a new, more stable color.
Critics are concerned that the treated meat may stay red longer than it stays fresh.
Dr. Don Berdahl speaks for a Michigan food company, Kalsec, which says the Food and Drug Administration broke its own rules when it allowed the meat treatment.
"The consumer, who's always used color as a test for freshness or wholesomeness, can no longer use this test or indicator," Berdahl said.
"There are statutes that forbid this. The FDA did not follow the processes that are needed to approve what is, in fact, a color additive."
Kalsec admitted it has competitive motives -- the food company could lose business to the carbon monoxide packaging.
But photos from an independent lab study show there are also safety reasons to fight the additive, NBC5's Lisa Parker
When carbon monoxide is added to the atmosphere inside packages of ground beef, the meat at day one looks just like the meat at day 12.
A study found that all the carbon-monoxide samples remained bright red in color throughout the 12-day test, even in the meat stored at 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
While no one has suggested the carbon monoxide in and of itself is dangerous here -- the amounts are very small -- the concern is the meat will look safe and fresh, when in fact, it no longer is, Parker reported.
"You could potentially have this bright red meat picked up by consumers, thinking that it's fresh, when actually it contains bacteria that are going to be very injurious to their health," Rosenbaum said.
U.S. food safety agencies have long condemned any procedure that could mislead consumers.
In 2004, two agencies, the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, first expressed concern that the use of carbon monoxide with fresh meat may cause the meat to retain its fresh color longer than meat not so treated, thereby misleading the consumer and increasing the potential for masking spoilage.
The agencies later reversed those concerns after deciding carbon monoxide is not a food additive in this case.
"Government scientists at the FDA have reviewed this technology not once, but on four occasions, and each time have arrived at the same conclusion -- that the process is appropriate and safe," Huffman said.
The meat industry says the benefits of the packaging technology far outweigh any possible downside.
"This petition that has been filed against this technology is really about money, not food safety," Huffman said.
But money is also key for the meat industry, Parker reported. It's estimated at least $1 billion of meat sales are lost every year due to meat discoloration.
By prolonging the amount of time it stays red, sales can only go up, Parker reported.
The debate is just starting to sizzle.
"It's very unlikely, extremely unlikely that the product is going to be spoiled and still be red," Huffman said.
But Kalsec's scientist disagreed.
"The consumer has no idea this is going on, and there's no marking on the package to allow the consumer to understand their meat has been treated with carbon monoxide," Berdahl said.
There are no specific labels on the treatment, but there are use-by dates, and the meat industry thinks consumers already rely heavily on them. Those who don't will need to, in the chance meat stays red beyond its expiration.
The treatment affects only case-ready meat -- the pre-packaged stuff, not the meat handled and wrapped by a butcher in the store.
Parker reported that the FDA did no independent testing of the carbon monoxide additive -- they relied on the companies using the technology for information.
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