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Cleveland Plain-Dealer: Keeping Meat Red and Customers in the Dark

August 19, 2007
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By GAP Food & Drug Safety Director Jacqueline Ostfeld. Versions of this op-ed have also appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, Baltimore Sun, Cincinnati Post, News & Observer (NC), China Post (Taiwan), Providence Journal (RI), Salt Lake City Tribune, Madison Capital Times (WI), Dayton Beach News Journal (FL), Greensboro News & Record, The Ledger (FL), Asheville Citizen Times (NC), Eugene Register Guard (OR), Tallahassee Democrat, Fargo Forum (ND), Topeka Capital Journal (KA), Virginia Free Lance Star, Traverse City Record Eagle (MI), The Argus (CA), Waterville Morning Sentinel, Vail Daily News (CO), Keene Sentinel (ME), Montana Standard, Key West Citizen, East Texas Review, Amsterdam Recorder (NY), Yankton Press and Dakotan (SD), Central Kentucky News Journal, Aurora Sentinel (CO), and Daily Sun News (WA).

In the shadow of the Chinese import scare, US consumers have won a victory. The retail giant Safeway, responding to pressure by public interest advocates and members of Congress, last week pulled carbon monoxide (CO) treated meat from its shelves.

Carbon monoxide in meat? Unbelievably, in 2004, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave their blessing to a number of large meat packers (including Tyson, Hormel and Cargill Foods) to inject CO in their case-ready meat products. It is unlikely that CO injections themselves present a poison risk. Regardless of this, they pose a public health and consumer fraud hazard.

Treating packaged meat with CO extends its shelf-life by keeping it red long after it begins to spoil. In fact, gassed meat holds its color for upwards of one year, whereas CO-free packaged meat typically starts to turn after just 10 to 12 days on the shelf. It’s easy to see why the meat industry likes CO: Gassed meat could save retailers $1 billion annually in lost sales resulting from that finicky consumer aversion to browning meat.

Why would the government permit this practice? After all, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act provides that a “food shall be deemed to be adulterated…if damage or inferiority has been concealed in any manner; or if any substance has been added thereto or mixed or packed therewith so as to…make it appear better or of greater value than it is.” This bar on concealing adulteration is what drove the USDA to ban the use of paprika in fresh meat products in 1969. CO injections are no different: Their sole purpose is to conceal inferiority and damage.

According to a poll conducted by Consumer Federation of America, the majority of consumers directly equate color with the freshness of their meat. That same poll found that more than three-quarters of US consumers believe the use of CO in meat is deceptive and over two-thirds of the public think gassed meat should be labeled. A leading meat scientist has observed that consumers “rate color as the most important trait in selecting fresh meat.”

The proper way to keep meat red is by temperature control. Meat should be kept at or below the freezing point during distribution, and under 40°F upon arrival at a retail store. When temperatures exceed 40°, meat enters the “danger zone.” It’s not uncommon for temperatures in the display case at the grocery store to be as high as 50°, which could cause premature spoilage and provide a nurturing environment for the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Due to color-preserving CO injections, such temperature control failures are not apparent to the consumer.

Which is why the USDA originally sent a letter to the FDA voicing concerns that CO-treated meat might mask spoilage and delude consumers. But two months later, the agency reversed its position. The USDA’s final decision to endorse this deceptive and hazardous marketing practice was the result of closed-door meetings with industry officials – meetings that excluded public participation. The public has no way of knowing right now why the USDA turned tail. Food safety watchdogs are seeking agency records through the Freedom of Information Act to shine a light on the decision-making process that sanctioned CO-treated meat.

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has introduced a bill to ban CO in meat packaging. She has also called on the FDA to consider consumer behavior and conduct an independent investigation into the safety of CO. Right now, the FDA is relying solely on limited industry data in giving CO injections a clean bill of health. In addition, Congressmen Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Edward Markey (D-MA) have introduced a bill that would force the industry to label CO-treated meat, should the ban fail.

Before Safeway’s decision to bar CO-gassed meat, a number of large retailers had already acknowledged the public health risks and consumer distaste for faux-fresh meat. Whole Foods, Wegmans, Publix, Superfresh, Stop & Shop, Kroger, Pathmark and a handful of other grocers have refused to carry gassed meat. Good for them. But many distributors continue to carry CO-treated meat and, until the government says they can’t, there’s no way to eyeball the freshness of shelved meat. And that has consumers still seeing red.

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