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Beware--the Meat and Seafood's Healthy Glow May Be Artificial

Beware--the Meat and Seafood's Healthy Glow May Be Artificial

Picture of Martha Rosenberg
Cartoon by Martha Rosenberg

Despite media exposes and a public backlash, a lot of meat today continues to be treated with gasses to keep it looking red. Like mercury in tuna, just because the risks are exposed and the public is outraged doesn't mean the producers change anything. They know the furor will die down and the public will forget.

Treating meat with carbon monoxide  keeps its oxymyoglobin, what makes it red, from turning brown or gray. In defending the use of gasses to keep meat looking fresh, the meat industry says that meat turning brown is no different than apples turning brown when exposed to the air--a harmless discoloration that does not affect wholesomeness. Right. But the Department of and the Committee on Food have voiced concerns about meat food appearing fresher than it is because of the artificially hues.

Another method the meat industry uses to keep food looking fresh is curing it with nitrites and nitrates. Most processed meat from bacon, Slim Jims and lunchmeat to canned hams, is made with the chemicals which give it color, flavor, a long shelf life and protection against bacterial growth. The problem is nitrites and nitrates have strong links to  cancer and the American Cancer Society discourages their consumption. Eating just one hot dog a day increased the risk of developing colorectal cancer by as much as 21 percent in at from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund. Nitrites and nitrates, which become nitrosamines in the body, are linked to colorectal cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, stroke, coronary heart disease and diabetes mellitus. Like cigarettes, people disregard the risks of processed meat, because it tastes good.

Poultry, of course, isn't supposed to look red. But coloration is also important to sales and the FDA permits chicken and turkey to be given feed that has arsenic in it for this reason. Yes, the FDA allows arsenic in the birds' feed for feed efficiency and weight gain to control parasites and … to improve the birds' pigmentation. In 2011, the that it found higher levels of arsenic in the livers of chickens treated with arsenic-laced feed and Pfizer, the drug company which also makes many animal drugs, withdrew the product. The problem is--other commercial poultry feed with arsenic in it is still sold and presumably in commercial poultry eaten.

Of course the poster child for food artificially colored to make it look fresh and appealing is farmed salmon. Almost all farmed salmon is dyed with the chemicals astaxanthin and canthaxanthin to make it an appealing pink instead of gray. Salmon farm operators can even choose the exact color they want. Canthaxanthin at high dosages has been linked in humans to retinal damage, partial loss of vision and a serious blood disorder called aplastic anemia. Why isn't farmed salmon pink like wild salmon? In the wild, salmon eat  crustaceans and algae which makes them pink. It is a far cry from the food they are given on salmon farms. 

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