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This is a debate you can sink your teeth into

Two sealed and packaged beef steaks reside in the supermarket case. One is rosy red; one tinged with brown.

Which one calls to the customer?

You already know the answer. My point is this: Don't be fooled by a pretty face. The rosy steak may be nicer to look at but it is not necessarily the fresher of the two.

Its color may have been bolstered with carbon monoxide.

All meat turns brown when exposed to the air. That's why some large processors inject a tiny bit of the gas into the packages of the "case-ready" meat they sell to retail outlets across the country to hold the red color.

It's called "modified atmosphere" packaging.

Case-ready meat is cut and hermetically sealed at the plant to save retail outlets the expense of hiring their own butchers. Adding carbon monoxide is a cosmetic practice approved by the FDA. The gas is harmless in the amount used, and it keeps meat looking tempting for a long time. The idea is meant to save the meat industry some of the billions of dollars it loses when forced to discount or discard ugly looking meat that is reasonably fresh and wholesome.

The use of the process is not very common in Western New York grocery stores. But its practice elsewhere is making consumer advocates see red. Advocates worry that the use of what they call a "pigment fixative" in case-ready meat is deceptive -- it fools people who depend on color to help them avoid buying bad meat.

And this week, a company called Kelsac Foods based in Michigan that makes what it calls "natural food extracts" petitioned the FDA to reconsider its use. If nothing else, advocates say the use of the carbon monoxide should be indicated on the label.

Some meat processors say that color should not be considered the only guide to freshness, you may be surprised to learn.

"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 that the product will not smell or look right," said an attorney who represents the Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. and Hormel Foods Corp, who pioneered the technology.

A spokesman for Wegmans says the chain does not buy meat if carbon monoxide is used. The chain's plastic Keeps Fresh packaging is prepared in its meat center in Rochester. It draws the air out of the package, it does not pump anything into it.

Spokesmen for the Suervalu, a wholesaler based in Ohio and a supplier to Jubilee stores and for Penn Traffic, operators of Quality Markets, say they do not buy case-ready meats. Denny Hopkins, spokesman for Tops Markets, however, said that the chain sells six such products. Four are marked Laura's Lean Beef -- beef patties, strip steak, delmonico and boneless sirloin. Tops also sells similarly treated meatloaf mix and 93 percent lean ground beef.

But Hopkins also noted that there are sell-by dates on all these packages.

"Food safety is always paramount at Tops Markets," he said. "We defer to FDA. They have reviewed this matter four times and declared carbon monoxide use is generally regarded as safe."

With all the hullabaloo, there's one thing to keep in mind. Safety is not the real question here; possible deception may be. The controversy serves a purpose. It reminds us all to read labels and dates so that we know what we are buying."Caveat emptor" -- let the buyer beware -- is more than something you might have learned in Latin class.

Caveat emptor is the operative maxim.


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