Meat Packing

You know that feeling you get when you eat half a sandwich only to discover the bread is moldy? C'mon, fess up. We've all done that, and we know that sinking feeling you get in your gut. No amount of brushing your teeth really makes your mouth feel clean.

Well, that was the way I felt last week as I was listening to a podcast of KCRW's Good Food while driving to Wyoming. They were discussing a new trend in food packing where meat containers are filled with carbon monoxide to prevent the meat from turning brown. "That's horrible", I thought. Then they described the packages and that's when it hit me. That's exactly the meat I've been buying from Walmart. Well, I guess I should have expected it from them.

I'm not sure when the switch started. I remember noticing the new packages and they struck me as odd with their bulging plastic. It seemed a little unusual since oxygen is one of those nasty things that can turn your fresh food not-so-fresh. But I never connected the dots.

"What's the big deal?", you wonder. That's a fair question. The problem is that with this impregnated packages, the retailer can leave the meat on the shelf for longer since it won't get that "that's disgusting!" look for at least 2 extra weeks. It also makes it possible that mishandled meat less likely to be discovered since the meat doesn't change color. Meat becomes easier to ship long distances which hurts local business, not least of whom the butch who is no longer necessary, along with encouraging large factory farms with their antibiotics and hormones. And finally, I worry that we have no idea what happens when you leave meat sitting in this gas. Sure, it might be safe, but how many things have we thought that about. Why risk it when it's really not necessary?

So how can you tell if your meat is one of these abominations? First off, take a look at these pictures.

You can see the bulging package that I was talking about. The other tell-tale characteristics include the deep tub, the USDA seal (which will never appear on a locally shrink-wrapped package of meat), and possibly a "use by" date far in the future. This package, however, was set to expire only 4 days from the date I purchased it. Really makes you wonder how long it sat on a truck. The fact that the date stamped on the package was EST and I live in MST makes me queasy as well.

And in closing, take a look at this cross section of the meat. I theorize that the very center of the meat turns brown first because the carbon monoxide doesn't penetrate through the meat completely. Since meat normally browns from the outside in, it sure makes me wonder what color the rest of the meat would be had the CO not been there. I guess I need to step up my plans to buy a freezer and a large side of beef from a local butcher.


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