No Beef in Meat Packaging Controversy

Yet another potential food scare is being manufactured out of thin air — or rather out of carbon monoxide.

Last November, with little fanfare, Michigan-based Kalsec, Inc. petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of carbon monoxide-based processes in meat packaging. Kalsec, the maker of a rival meat packaging technology, claims that the use of carbon monoxide in meat packaging is unsafe and could lead to the consumption of spoiled meat that appears safe upon visual inspection.

Kalsec’s petition exploded into a major media frenzy last week after the Washington Post reported (Feb. 20) that meat packagers have “quietly begun to spike meat packages with carbon monoxide in order to give meat a bright pink color that lasts weeks.”

The industry’s motivation, according to the Post, is to save “much of the $1 billion it says it loses annually from having to discount or discard meat that is reasonably fresh and perfectly safe, but no longer pretty.”

Politicians, especially those from Kalsec’s home state, and anti-meat activists have joined in the fray calling on the FDA to ban the use of the carbon monoxide-based packaging process.

Not unlike sliced apples, the color of red meat can change rapidly. The meat starts out purplish in color. Immediately after slicing and exposure to air, it turns red. Continued exposure to air can turn it brown and even grayish – all the while remaining perfectly safe to eat.

But consumers tend to prefer beef that appears red in color. So the industry developed what are known as “modified atmosphere packaging” (MAP) technologies which replace the air in meat packaging with various combinations of gases that retard the discoloration process.

MAP technologies don’t “add” color to meat. They don’t modify bacterial growth and don’t mask spoilage. They simply form a more stable color and avoid premature browning of meat due to oxygenation.

There are no reports of consumers inadvertently eating spoiled meat that had been MAP-treated and becoming sick. This is not surprising since all carbon monoxide-packaged meats display use-by dates. While it’s possible that packaged meat may spoil before the use-by-date if not stored at the proper temperature, consumers would be alerted to such spoilage by bulging packaging, or a strong odor and slimy texture.

Contrary to the implication of the Post report, the meat packaging industry has not “quietly begun to spike meat packages with carbon monoxide.” The practice is, in fact, more than 20 years old. It was hailed as a “success,” for example, in a December 1984 article in the Financial Times (UK) and as “hi-tech” in a December 1985 Fortune article.

The Food and Drug Administration first approved a carbon monoxide-based MAP technology in February 2002. Meat packagers and processors have since increasingly begun using the technology, displacing previously used high-oxygen MAP systems, such as those sold by Kalsec.

“It is a calculated move to discredit a competing technology,” said the American meat Institute’s J. Patrick Boyle in a press release. “Carbon monoxide-based systems stand to make obsolete Kalsec’s product. That’s what this entire petition and accompanying media campaign are all about,” added Boyle.

What appears to have driven Kalsec to the desperation of petitioning the FDA to have carbon monoxide-based MAP declared unsafe is the FDA’s approval on Sept. 29, 2005 of an application by Tyson Foods – a Kalsec customer – to have its carbon monoxide-based MAP process be given the GRAS or “generally recognized as safe” designation by FDA.

Activist groups are helping to whip up the frenzy about carbon monoxide-packaged meat simply because it dovetails nicely with their long-standing agendas. Long-time beef scare-mongering groups like Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) are joining in the fray, attempting to position the controversy as a “consumer’s right-to-know” issue – or at least that’s what STOP told the Washington Post. But STOP’s sincerity can be rightly questioned since, rather than calling for labeling, it joined the CFA and Kalsec in January in asking the FDA for an outright ban on carbon monoxide-based MAP.

No doubt fundraising is tougher these days for groups like STOP that rely on outbreaks of food-borne illness to garner media attention – 2005 was a non-event food poisoning-wise.

“One of the major topics conspicuous by its absence in 2005 was news coverage dealing with food safety issues. There were no major outbreaks of food-borne illness,” reported the International Food Information Council. Moreover, the prevalence of food pathogens in meat, like E. coli 0157:H7, listeria monocytogenes, salmonella are steadily declining, according to data from the American Meat Institute.

It’s too bad we can’t say the same for junk science-based scaremongering.