Carbon monoxide keeps meat red longer; is that good?

ByABC News
October 31, 2007, 2:21 PM

— -- A small company in Kalamazoo, Mich., has the meat industry on the run over how the meat you buy is packaged.

Kalsec has waged a two-year fight and spent $800,000 to battle food regulators and meat producers over a fledgling practice of packaging fresh meat with a harmless dose of carbon monoxide.

The gas keeps meat an appealing red for more than 20 days about twice as long as other popular packaging and far longer than the few days unwrapped meat stays red in a butcher's case.

The red color is the problem, say Kalsec, consumer groups and several lawmakers. The gas not only keeps meat red while on the shelf but after it's spoiled.

They say consumers who consider color when picking meat will be fooled into buying spoiled or old meat and not smell trouble until they open the package at home.

The packaging presents "serious consumer deception and food-safety risks," Kalsec says in a filing to the Food and Drug Administration. It wants the practice banned.

The meat industry disputes Kalsec's claims and says it is running a "baseless" scare campaign because carbon monoxide packaging would obliterate a rival Kalsec product.

A family-run firm with 300 employees, Kalsec sells natural colorings, spices and herbs. One of its products is a rosemary extract that meat processors use in packaging that keeps meat a nice red for about half as long as the carbon monoxide-infused packaging.

When Kalsec saw major meat companies switch to carbon monoxide, "It started an attack campaign," says Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute, who says Kalsec's "arguments are hollow."

The meat industry says shoppers are tipped off to bad meat by bulging packages in stores and expired use-or-freeze-by dates. By keeping meat fresh-looking longer, the industry hopes to save millions of dollars a year by selling meat that consumers would have shunned before because of poor color.

Carbon monoxide packaging is "not a public health issue," says Michael Osterholm, a public health official at the University of Minnesota who often criticizes foodmakers for poor food-safety controls.