How could a piece of meat look so fresh after being left unrefrigerated for 11 days?
It's because it's been packed and gassed in a special process that most people never heard about that uses harmless amounts of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which keeps the meat looking fresh and bright red for longer periods. The process is safe, but some people think that bright red color could be misleading consumers.
Inside Edition’s Chief Investigative Correspondent Lisa Guerrero spoke to Dr. Ed Mills, a professor of meat science at Penn State University.
“How long through this process can you continue to make a piece of red meat look bright red?” she asked.
“A long time,” he replied.
The redness lasts two to three weeks so the color of a piece of meat doesn't necessarily indicate its freshness, he said.
“A consumer can't look at the products to tell its two weeks or three weeks old. They have to look at the 'sell by' date of the package,” he told Inside Edition.
To demonstrate how well the gas processing can work, Inside Edition left two cuts of lamb out at room temperature. One was gas-packed, the other was not.
After a few days, the untreated meat turned a dark, unappealing color but the gas-packed meat stayed red, even after being left out for eight days. The only visible signs of spoiling are the packaging puffing out and a bad odor when the package is opened.
The meat was analyzed in a lab, which found that both cuts were loaded with bacteria.
“Without refrigerated storage, I can't assume the product is safe to consume. 'Sell by' date and refrigeration is what you go by as a consumer,” Dr. Mills told Inside Edition.
John Niccolai heads a union that represents butchers in N.J. He thinks meat should be fresh cut in stores by trained butchers.
"A consumer cannot look at the ingredients and see that gas has been added to this package?" Guerrero said.
“No, it's not an ingredient so it doesn't have to go on the package,” he said. “Tell the consumer, put up a big sign and say, ‘we do not cut any fresh meat in the store.’”
Niccolai suggested that Inside Edition visit a supermarket in New Jersey and talk to a union butcher. “All the meat I see on the display wasn't cut here?" Guerrero asked the butcher.
When he said "no, none of the meat was cut here," Guerrero added: “Do you think the customers know there is gas in some of this packaging?”
“No, I don't believe so,” he said. "It's like the Army. Don't ask, don't tell."
The gas packaging has been approved by both the FDA and USDA and the North American Meat Institute says it has been used safely in meat products for many years.