Do You Know Nutrition: Safety of carbon monoxide in food questioned

By Phylis Canion
Oct. 16, 2012 at 5:16 a.m.

After reading your column last week on bacteriophage sprayed on meat to kill listeria, I wonder if that chemical is what turns meat pink in its package? I can lift a piece of meat off of another and it is brown underneath. I am not sure which is safer to eat - the pink or the brown. Is that the same chemical?

The practice of packaging fresh meat and keeping it red in color is known as carbon-monoxide-infused packaging.

The gas keeps meat an appealing red for more than 20 days by reacting with the meat pigment myoglobin to create carboxymyoglobin. The 20 days is twice as long as other packaging and much longer than the few days unwrapped meat will stay in a butcher's case.

In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration approved the process of prepackaging meat with carbon monoxide in vacuum or gas packaging and made it legal, stating that carbon monoxide is not a food additive.

Because carbon monoxide is referred to as a fixative rather than a color additive, it is not required to pass a rigorous Food and Drug Administration review.

What we do know is that carbon monoxide is a toxic gas that is odorless and a by-product from the combustion of natural gas, oil, coal, wood, kerosene and other substances and can make bad meat look appetizing. It can also mask readily identifiable signs of aging or spoilage in fresh meat.

Treating meat with carbon monoxide could also hide the growth of pantogens, such as Clostridium botulinum, salmonella and E. coli.

According to the American Medical Association, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning in the United States. On average, 1,500 people die annually and 10,000 seek medical attention from carbon monoxide exposure.

Symptoms caused by carbon monoxide poisoning include chronic, flu-like symptoms and feeling drowsy or dizzy.

And one last thing - if you are looking for carbon monoxide to be listed on food packaging labels, it is generally listed as "natural flavoring."

Thought for the week: Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.

Phylis B. Canion is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and is a certified nutritional consultant; email her at This column is for nutritional information only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure.



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