Oh oh: Supermarket meat may not be all that fresh

Those cuts of red meat in the supermarket locker may not be as fresh as they look.

Under little-noted rulings over the last three years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has allowed meat processors to use small amounts of carbon monoxide to maintain the red color in fresh meat sold in pre-assembled or “case-ready” packages.

Such packages are airtight containers assembled with the product at meat-packing plants and are not made to be reopened until they are sold to consumers. Some packages are marketed for up to 35 days, or 28 days in the case of ground beef.

Kalsec, a food-and-spice company based in Kalamazoo, Mich., is protesting the FDA action, saying the carbon-monoxide treatment is an illegal additive to fresh meat that disguises the freshness of the meat and hides spoilage.

“Color is the indicator consumers use most often to determine if meat is fresh,” said Don Berdahl, Kalsec’s vice president. He explained that carbon-monoxide gas reacts with the pigment of the blood in meat and gives it a deep red color that can fool shoppers.

The company also charged that the practice is not safe and can hide the growth of dangerous pathogens like botulinum, salmonella and E. coli.

Kalsec wants the FDA to either rescind its approval of the use of carbon monoxide or require meat packers to label treated product to alert consumers.

The FDA has not objected to companies using carbon monoxide as a processing aid in several cases over the last three years, ruling that the gas is in the category of “substances generally recognized as safe” and so not requiring complete regulatory review.

The agency notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved the use of wood smoke containing carbon monoxide as an ingredient in meat and poultry products and that only insignificant amounts of the gas remain in the meat after consumers open the container.

In approving a request last year from Precept, a company operated by meat processors Hormel and Cargill, the FDA acknowledged the processors wanted the carbon monoxide in case-ready packages to keep the meat from turning brown.

Laura Tarantino, director of the office of food-additive safety at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, noted the companies stated “that the CO (carbon monoxide) is included in the modified atmosphere to help maintain the characteristic color of fresh meat. Precept states that the CO is not intended to affect microbial growth and will not extend the shelf life of the product.”

The European Union banned the use of carbon monoxide in meat in 2003 after a scientific panel concluded the process deceives consumers and exposes them to unsafe meat.

Elizabeth Campbell, former head of FDA’s office of food labeling and now an industry consultant, questioned the FDA’s decisions.

“The FDA should not have accepted carbon monoxide in meat without doing its own independent evaluation of the safety implications,” she said.

The meat industry said the FDA’s approval of the packaging was proper.

“The scientific evidence supports the safety of this packing technology,” said James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation. “Unfortunately, it appears that this petition to ban a safe technology may be motivated by competitive interests. It is unfortunate that this competitive attack may create food safety concerns when there are none here.”

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com)