Picture two steaks on a grocer's shelf, each sealed in clear plastic wrap. One is bright pink, rimmed with a crescent of pearly white fat. The other is brown, its fat the color of a smoker's teeth.
Which do you reach for?
The meat industry knows the answer, which is why it has quietly begun to spike meat packages with carbon monoxide.
The gas, harmless to health at the levels being used, gives meat a bright pink color that lasts weeks. The hope is that it will save the industry much of the $1-billion it says it loses annually from having to discount or discard meat that is reasonably fresh and perfectly safe but no longer pretty.
But the growing use of carbon monoxide as a "pigment fixative" is alarming consumer advocates and others who say it deceives shoppers who depend on color to help them avoid spoiled meat. Those critics are challenging the Food and Drug Administration and the nation's meat industry, saying the agency violated its own rules by allowing the practice without a formal evaluation of its impact on consumer safety.
"This meat stays red and stays red and stays red," said Don Berdahl, vice president at Kalsec Foods in Kalamazoo, Mich., a maker of natural food extracts that has petitioned the FDA to ban the practice. If nothing else, Berdahl and others say, meat treated with carbon monoxide should be labeled so consumers will know not to trust their eyes.
The meat industry denies that carbon monoxide is a "colorant" - a category that would require a full FDA review - saying it helps meat retain its naturally red color.
Besides, industry representatives say, color is a poor indicator of freshness as meat turns brown from exposure to oxygen long before it goes bad.
"When a product reaches the point of spoilage, there will be other signs that will be evidenced - for example odor, slime formation and a bulging package - so the product will not smell or look right," said Ann Boeckman, a lawyer with the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson. It represents Precept Foods LLC, a joint venture between Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. and Hormel Foods Corp. that helped pioneer the technology.
No one knows how much meat treated with carbon monoxide is being sold; the companies involved are privately held or keep that information secret. But the potential is seen as great.
"We feel it's a huge consumer right-to-know issue," said Donna Rosenbaum of Safe Tables Our Priority, an advocacy group in Burlington, Vt. Last month, the group and the Consumer Federation of America wrote the FDA in support of a ban.
At the core of the issue is how the FDA has assessed companies' requests to use carbon monoxide in their packaging.
About five years ago, Pactiv Corp. of Lake Forest, Ill., urged the FDA to declare the approach "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS - a regulatory category that allows a firm to proceed without public review or formal agency approval.
The FDA told Pactiv in 2002 it had no argument with the proposal. In 2004, Precept Foods received a similar letter, and recently Tyson did as well.
Kalsec acknowledges having an economic interest in fighting the practice. The company sells extracts of rosemary and other natural essences that help block the oxidation that turns meat brown. That is a market that could largely disappear if packagers switch to carbon monoxide, which keeps meat looking red almost indefinitely.
But Kalsec, and the consumer advocates who have signed on to the fight, say it is not just the market in extracts that is at risk.
They note that the European Union has banned the use of carbon monoxide as a color stabilizer in meat and fish. A December 2001 report from the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Food concluded that the gas (whose chemical abbreviation is CO) did not pose a risk as long as food was kept cold enough during storage and transport to prevent microbial growth. But should the meat become inadvertently warmer at some point, it warned, "the presence of CO may mask visual evidence of spoilage."
Opponents also say the FDA was wrong to consider carbon monoxide a color fixative rather than a color additive - a crucial decision because additives must pass a rigorous FDA review. They note that freshly cut meat looks purplish red, and that the addition of carbon monoxide - which binds to a muscle protein called myoglobin - turns it irreversibly pink.
Proponents of the gas counter that meat turns from purple to red just from sitting in air, and that CO prevents the next step, in which meats turn brown. They also say consumers should pay attention to "sell or freeze by" dates as the best indicator of freshness.