Did you ever wonder how the meat sold in the grocery store always looks so fresh? Have you thought about how long it takes to get from a live animal to the slaughterhouse to the packer to the distributor to the grocery store to the meat case and finally to your dinner plate?
(Answer: about fourteen days to the store.)
There’s magic in the meat.
Well, not really magic–more like carbon monoxide. Two-thirds of the meat (beef and chicken) packaged for consumer use in the U.S. are prepared and packaged at a meat packing plant that then ships it case-ready for grocery stores. In the process, many packers inject carbon monoxide into the package that surrounds the meat to keep it looking–but not necessarily remaining–fresh.
The carbon monoxide becomes infused in the meat and attaches itself to myoglobin (a kind of intercellular protein) in the meat and oxygen is thereby retained, keeping the meat looking fresh. No one will buy brown meat. The carbon monoxide creates a low-oxygen environment that inhibits the growth of bacteria that cause spoilage.
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This all sounds good, though, doesn’t it?
Who wouldn’t want the meat to be kept looking fresh and free from harmful bacteria?
The issue is the means by which it’s done. Carbon monoxide (CO, one carbon atom plus one oxygen atom) is a colorless, odorless, flavorless gas that is lethal to humans in large amounts (think about the warning on a gas furnace or bag of charcoal).
When it is used in meat packaging, CO sticks to hemoglobin (the oxygen carrier in the blood) in the meat and stays there, ready for you to eat it. The meat industry asserts that since it’s not inhaled, CO poses no threat to human health when eaten in meat as the result of atmospheric packaging.
Consider this: Clostridium perfringens bacteria are one of the most common causes of food-borne illness. They thrive where there is little oxygen. Enter the meat (and imported fish) that has been treated with CO in the atmospheric packaging process. It’s estimated that about half of the meat sold in grocery stores contain this bacteria; where it’s found: in the meat subjected to CO treatment.
What makes this even worse is that consumers aren’t aware of this practice. There is no labeling on the meat, which would give them a choice.
Natural Alternatives to This Practice
Meat bought at a local butcher shop is not subject to this process. An option (other than vegetarianism) is aged beef. There are two methods of aging: wet and dry. During the wet-aging process, meat is packaged in vacuum-sealed packages and kept under strict environmental conditions for anywhere from three to ninety days before being shipped for retail sale.
The tenderness and flavor of the meat is enhanced by this process due to natural enzymes gently breaking down the muscle fibers. The dry-aging process is a traditional way of curing meat: it is stored uncut on the carcass, again under very strict environmental conditions, and packaged at a particular point in the molecular break-down.
As for chicken and fish: flash frozen and vacuum-packed or fresh from the farm (in the case of poultry) or the ocean (for fish) are better than commerically-packaged.