Carbon monoxide use in meat to be investigated

US - Retailers and manufacturers of meat products have been called on to provide information on their practice of packing fresh meat in carbon monoxide.
calendar icon 2 July 2007
clock icon 4 minute read
According to Representatives John Dingell, Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, this method poses a public health risk as it disguises the spoilage of meat.

Dingell and Stupak this week sent letters companies including Cargill, Tyson Foods and Safeway Stores, requesting them to respond to inquiries on their use of this method.

"American consumers deserve to know that when they purchase food that looks fresh and safe, it actually is," said Dingell.

"We want to hear from Safeway and its meat suppliers about the precautions, warnings and other protections they have put in place to prevent consumers from unknowingly purchasing spoiled or contaminated foods."

Carbon monoxide is used in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) as a technique for maintaining food quality. By altering the atmospheric conditions within the package, products can have a longer shelf life.

The MAP method works by replacing the air with a mixture of inert gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The package is then heat sealed. The low-oxygen mix extends the shelf-life of the meat, vegetables and other perishable foods by up to 15 days from the normal five days, a big plus at a time when the market is working to ensure food safety and extend their markets.

However, carbon monoxide also makes meat appear fresher than it actually is by reacting with the meat pigment myoglobin to create carboxymyoglobin, a bright red pigment that masks any of the natural aging and spoilage of meats.

Although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the practice as safe for use in 2004 in response to requests from two food companies, the EU prohibits food companies from using carbon monoxide. Several countries including Japan, Canada and Singapore also ban the use of carbon monoxide in tuna.

More than a year ago, Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats raised concerns about the dangers carbon monoxide packaging poses to the public health, particularly the elderly.

In letters dated February 9, 2006, and March 30, 2006, they requested that the US Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA remove products treated with carbon monoxide from markets until the safety of these products could be assessed. According to Dingell and Stupak, these requests were ignored.

"We refuse to let the FDA continue stonewalling consumers and Congress about this dangerous deception," said Stupak.

"We are particularly concerned about the FDA's decision in light of our discovery of carbon monoxide treated fish from China and other Asian countries that are regularly rejected for spoilage. The American people deserve to know whether FDA was aware of the apparent masking of spoiled fish with carbon monoxide when it determined that its use was 'Generally Recognized As Safe.'"

He added that the Committee would be opening an investigation into the FDA's GRAS approval process.

Last year, a bill was drafted by Representative Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut, which would outlaw "carbon monoxide in any meat or meat food products or the packaging of any meat or meat food products."

In addition, Michigan-based Kalsec also petitioned FDA to rescind its approval of the use of carbon monoxide to keep meat looking red and fresh. Kalsec is a maker of a line of herbal extracts that retard the effects of oxidation and thus competes with carbon monoxide meat packaging systems.

Since the petition was made the FDA has faced mounting criticism from consumer groups over it decision in 2004 to allow food processors to use the gas. Such moves could end up with the US food regulator rescinding its decision and depriving processors of a means of making their products look attractive.

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