In a story that’s been almost overlooked, Tyson Foods announced on Monday that it would no longer package meat using carbon monoxide. The company released a statement citing “a lack of customer demand for this type of packaging, not because of any food safety concern.” If you’re confused about why a gas like carbon monoxide is anywhere around meat at all, let’s walk the story back a few years.
A half decade ago, companies began petitioning the FDA to approve carbon monoxide–gassed meat, or “modified atmosphere” meat. Carbon monoxide keeps meat artificially pink. The treated meat can look bright and freshly slaughtered for weeks. For the meat industry, those warm colors are very lucrative: Shoppers reject and stores toss flesh that’s gray, even if the meat’s still safe—the industry puts losses as high as $1 billion.
For consumers, gassing has less convincing benefits. The amount of gas isn’t hazardous, but studies have shown that carbon monoxide–treated meat can rot and still look rosy. The FDA approved the treatment as GRAS, or Generally Recognized As Safe, which allowed it to bypass formal agency review. The FDA even said that treating meat with carbon monoxide was not necessarily deceptive—even though decades ago it banned using paprika on fresh meat for that exact reason.
As the practice accelerated, a fierce backlash did too, and this year the House Energy and Commerce Committee began investigating the issue, and demanding legislation that would require packages treated with carbon monoxide be labeled as such—a disclosure that would effectively kill the technique. (Unless, you know, people are buying it for the flavor.) Amid all the attention, Safeway, the largest grocery chain carrying carbon monoxide–treated meat, announced last month that it would stop selling it. Hormel and Cargill are still using carbon monoxide.
Maybe they’ll start using rosemary instead: A 2006 study showed that when extract of rosemary, a natural preservative, is added to polypropylene film, steaks stay pink about 17 percent longer.