A small company in Kalamazoo, Mich., has the meat industry on the run over how the meat you buy is packaged.
Kalsec has waged a two-year fight and spent $800,000 to battle food regulators and meat producers over a fledgling practice of packaging fresh meat with a harmless dose of carbon monoxide.
The gas keeps meat an appealing red for more than 20 days — about twice as long as other popular packaging and far longer than the few days unwrapped meat stays red in a butcher's case.
The red color is the problem, say Kalsec, consumer groups and several lawmakers. The gas not only keeps meat red while on the shelf but after it's spoiled.
They say consumers — who consider color when picking meat — will be fooled into buying spoiled or old meat and not smell trouble until they open the package at home.
The packaging presents "serious consumer deception and food-safety risks," Kalsec says in a filing to the Food and Drug Administration. It wants the practice banned.
The meat industry disputes Kalsec's claims and says it is running a "baseless" scare campaign because carbon monoxide packaging would obliterate a rival Kalsec product.
A family-run firm with 300 employees, Kalsec sells natural colorings, spices and herbs. One of its products is a rosemary extract that meat processors use in packaging that keeps meat a nice red for about half as long as the carbon monoxide-infused packaging.
When Kalsec saw major meat companies switch to carbon monoxide, "It started an attack campaign," says Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute, who says Kalsec's "arguments are hollow."
The meat industry says shoppers are tipped off to bad meat by bulging packages in stores and expired use-or-freeze-by dates. By keeping meat fresh-looking longer, the industry hopes to save millions of dollars a year by selling meat that consumers would have shunned before because of poor color.
Carbon monoxide packaging is "not a public health issue," says Michael Osterholm, a public health official at the University of Minnesota who often criticizes foodmakers for poor food-safety controls.
Osterholm, who also consults for food companies Fresh Express and Hormel Foods, says he's never heard of a food-borne illness outbreak tied to spoiled meat, in part because bacteria such as E. coli don't thrive in spoiled meat because spoilage bacteria out-compete them for nutrients. "There are huge issues in food safety right now, and this isn't one of them."
Yet the issue is playing big on Capitol Hill. Two Democrats from Kalsec's home state, Reps. John Dingell and Bart Stupak, have taken up the matter as part of a wide-ranging assault on the government's food-safety record.
Their committee, the Energy and Commerce Committee, has not only held two food-safety hearings this year in which the issue was discussed, but they've also sent letters to meat companies and grocers challenging the use of carbon monoxide packaging. Almost one by one, the letter-getters have folded.
Pages of questions
In June, the legislators wrote Safeway swy, noting that the company, "unlike most other supermarket chains," sold fresh meat packaged in a way to "alter the color of the meat to make it appear fresh and wholesome indefinitely."
The letter then posed pages of questions for Safeway, including how it "assures that consumers, particularly those of declining eyesight, can read the use-or-freeze-by dates on packages."