Tyson: No More Carbon Monoxide in Packaging

The world's largest beef processor will stop using carbon monoxide in its packaging.

Tyson Foods Inc. sent a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, saying that it would phase out the practice. When used in certain types of packaging, carbon monoxide bonds to meat proteins, which can keep the meat looking fresh for weeks.

In its Aug. 9 letter, the foods giant noted that the method has been approved for use in the United States but said, "Tyson has decided to discontinue the use of the barrier tray CO process."

In an e-mail to ABC News, Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson added, "We've been using carbon monoxide in only a very small percentage of our packages of case-ready beef but have decided to discontinue this practice."

"Our decision is based on a lack of customer (i.e., retail grocers) demand for this type of packaging, not because of any food safety concern. We believe the technology, which is approved by USDA and FDA, is safe for the consumer," Mickelson continued.

The company anticipates a complete phase out by early September.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., applauded the voluntary move. "The supply of meat at the grocer's will indeed be safer, and consumers will clearly benefit from the action this company is taking," he said.

The addition of carbon monoxide to meat packaging has drawn criticism from consumer groups.

One of those organizations, Food & Water Watch, called the decision a victory for consumers and explained what the organization sees as a risk associated with the meat.

"By creating a red color typically associated with freshness, carbon monoxide makes meat appear fresher than it is," the group's executive director, Wenonah Hauter, said in a statement. "Because we all rely on color when choosing fresh meat for our families, carbon monoxide treatment could deceive consumers into buying spoiled meat that looks fresh and safe."

The meat industry itself cautions consumers that color is not the gold standard of meat freshness. "We don't believe color should be used as the only indicator of quality and freshness, and it's certainly not an indicator of safety," Randy Huffman of the American Meat Institute told ABC News last year.

Huffman added that adding carbon monoxide to the packaging just preserves the color, so consumers see a shade they're accustomed to.

The Food and Drug Administration classifies carbon monoxide as an additive to the packaging that is "generally recognized as safe," but the House Energy and Commerce Committee has opened an investigation into the practice, which has already been banned by the European Union.

Democrats on the committee sent letters to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA last year, asking for the removal of products treated with the gas from store shelves until the safety of the process could be further evaluated. The committee says "these requests were ignored."

In June, Reps. Dingell and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., sent letters to several meat producers, including Tyson, and a grocery story chain questioning their use of the practice.

Tyson's announcement comes on the heels of a July 16 announcement from Safeway Inc., one of the nation's largest grocery store chains, that it would also discontinue the sale of meat packed in carbon monoxide-infused packaging. Hormel and Cargill, however, have informed the committee that they do not have plans to discontinue the packaging technique.

"Firms like Hormel and Cargill that believe it is acceptable to endanger consumers if it helps the companies' bottom lines will soon learn that this Congress will not tolerate their deceptive practices," Stupak said in a statement.