Recently, I went shopping for some beef and I noticed that the beef that is sold in grocery stores looks bright red even when it is late in the afternoon and the piece of meat has been sitting in the front of the display case all day. I had a gut feeling that something was wrong. Were all of these meats looking good because of red lights or because of some preservative? With those questions in mind, I did a little investigation for myself and here is what I found out.

Traditionally, shoppers use color to determine whether or not a piece of fish or meat is fresh.

However, this method no longer works because the food industry has figured out a way to alter the “environment” or more appropriately called “modified atmospheres” by adding carbon monoxide. Yes, that is the same gas that comes out from your car’s tailpipe that can kill you if you breathe too much of it.

Did you know that when people die from carbon monoxide poisoning, they look bright red like they got a bad second-degree sunburn?

So how exactly does carbon monoxide make the meat of tuna fish, steak, and other red color meats look bright red even if it has spoiled?

Well, myoglobin is the muscle pigment that serves to carry oxygen to the working muscles when the fish is alive. When the fish is cut up, oxygen comes into contact with myoglobin in the exposed tuna meat surface. The oxygen is absorbed and reacts with the myoglobin to form a bright red pigment (oxymyoygobin), which brings about the attractive red color of fresh tuna meat.

However, with storage over a period of time and continued exposure to oxygen, the red color of the meat gradually changes into various shades of brown due to oxidation and conversion of the oxymyoglobin to a brown pigment (metmyoglobin). This is how we can tell that the fish is no longer fresh.

However, when we treat the fish or beef with carbon monoxide the fish or beef remains bright red even if it’s spoiled! So we as consumers can no longer judge whether or not a piece of meat is fresh or spoiled simply by looking.

The only other choice would be to use one’s nose, however that gets rather difficult if there is a sheet of cellophane between your nose and the piece of meat or fish.

I personally love eating sushi and the Japanese restaurant I go to buys fresh tuna at least a couple times a week from the wharf. But when you or I attempt to buy frozen tuna, not freshly cut from the carcass, the odds are that the tuna has been carbon monoxided.

Apparently, it would seem that the FDA would like for us to ignore the fact that carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas and that we should further ignore the fact that pumping small amounts of carbon monoxide into a small package of meat is supposedly safe.

If the issue is oxygen and the oxidative process that turns the meats brown, why then don’t we use nitrogen? Food cooked under the condition of nitrogen stays fresh for 5-10 years and it also does not change the color of the meat to bright red.

The point here is that there are other means to preserve meats with non-toxic gasses without also causing them to glow bright red and not being able to tell when the meats have spoiled.

According to an article in e-Alert “live for the moment”, in 2004 the FDA approved the use of modified atmosphere packaging (also known as MAP), which use a variety of gases to help preserve meat and in the case of carbon monoxide, keeps the meat looking fresh.

Considering that this was done one year after the European Union banned the use of carbon monoxide because a review panel decided that it would deceive consumers and expose them to unsafe meat.

I wouldn’t call that exactly looking out for the consumers’ well being, would you?

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