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Is pink meat real, or gassed? FDA needs to take simple steps to label and test packaged meat

Like many food products, meat now comes seasoned with deception. Without independent study, the Food and Drug Administration now allows meat producers to spike cuts of meat with a bit of carbon monoxide to keep their products attractively pink far longer than they otherwise would stay fresh-looking at the meat counter.

The level of carbon monoxide used isn't unsafe, but its masking of a key factor used by consumers in buying meat adds another worry to health concerns. Brown or even gray meat still can be safe -- odor and slime are far better signs of decay -- but pink sells. The change is an effort to curtail an estimated $1 billion a year in losses in fairly fresh but oxygen-browned meat that consumers just won't buy. It also accelerates a trend toward shipping "case-ready" meats that allows supermarkets to trim local butchers off their payrolls.

This sort of thing is not unique. Some tuna is kept pink by the same "modified atmosphere packaging," which uses other harmless gases to replace oxygen. Many food products include preservatives, and some produce, picked early, is shipped in nitrogen-filled trucks to force color changes en route to distant markets. The FDA actually approved use of carbon monoxide on meats two years ago, but it is now becoming more common.

There's an honesty issue here. Meat packaged with carbon monoxide isn't marked as such, and it should be. At the very least, consumers should know the healthy pink color they're seeing isn't as reliable a guide to freshness as it appears to be. But even more worrisome is a warning by some scientists that salmonella grows more easily in treated meats that are stored at 10 degrees above the proper temperature, so there could be a safety issue after all.

For now, few major supermarket chains are selling such treated meats. But as the industry changes, so will they. Such products should be government-tested, and if they pass that safety test then they should clearly be marked as packaged with coloration-extending carbon monoxide. Until then, at least don't inhale your meats. Leave that to the teenagers.

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