In the latest of a series of hearings on national food safety, Congress today examined a joint decision made by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow meat and fish to be packaged in a modified atmosphere containing carbon monoxide. The practice, which affects the color of meat and fish products to make them look fresh indefinitely, was called "highly deceiving" by some lawmakers who believe it misleads consumers into believing that food is fresher than it really is.
The House Energy and Commerce Oversight Chairman Bart Stupak said the treatment "provides no benefit at all" and "does nothing to preserve the freshness of meat and fish" or "prolong the food's shelf life."
Rep. Stupak, D-Mich., continued, "To put it bluntly, the sole purpose of carbon monoxide packaging is to fool consumers into believing that the meat and fish they buy is fresh no matter how old it is and no matter how decayed it might be."
He noted that the EU, Canada, Singapore and Japan have all banned the use of carbon monoxide in meat packaging, and said "the FDA and USDA have turned a blind eye to this practice.
Stupak and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., introduced legislation to require the labeling of carbon monoxide treated meat. Earlier this year, the two Michigan Democrats wrote letters to Tyson Foods, Safeway, Giant Foods, the Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. and Target to question sales of carbon monoxide treated meat. Tyson, Safeway, Giant and Stop & Shop have all since discontinued the sale of such meat. Today Target announced it was requesting USDA approval to add a warning to meat packages sold in its stores.
The FDA's David Acheson, who along with other FDA and USDA officials sat at a table covered with various samples of year-old meat that still appears fresh, and said that "this particular issue is not a safety concern even remotely high on our radar screen."
He added that he believes that most people are aware that meat is packaged with carbon monoxide, a claim refuted by Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill.
Officials also testified that the primary indicator that consumers use when purchasing meat and fish is not their color but its sell-by date. Asked by Stupak if she agreed with that claim, Nancy Donley, of Safe Tables Our Priority, said she did not.
Donley responded, "Consumers use their eyes. They say, 'That looks good. I'm going to eat it.' "
"The American consumer is not aware of what they are buying and eating. How could they be? It's not labeled," said Mike Picchietti, of Regal Springs Trading Co. "Most Americans realize that carbon monoxide is a very common poison and therefore using it as an ingredient is alarming".
Committee member Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., sided with Acheson of the FDA.
"How many experts have to say that use of carbon monoxide in meat packaging is not a safety issue before we believe them?" Blackburn asked. "The case for public health risk cannot be made."
Later in the hearing, lawmakers turned their attention to CEOs of companies that continue to use carbon monoxide in packaging their food. One of these companies, Cargill, recently recalled a million pounds of ground beef, more than 100,000 pounds of which had been treated and packaged with carbon monoxide and "looked as fresh as the day it was butchered," according to Dingell.
Hormel's CEO Jeffrey Ettinger said that his company does not "add carbon monoxide to make a product look fresh past it's code date" and that "consumers are not eating bad product and are not being deceived by this technology."
"Color is not an adequate indicator of freshness and the consumer should refer to the use-by/freeze-by date," Ettinger suggested.
The testimony was not enough to placate Dingell. "The consumer is at risk and I think that Food and Drug is not doing its job," Dingell said. "Food and Drug is the architect of this misery, and we've got to see to it that Food and Drug do a better job," he said.
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said that if that's the case, then "the architect of the misery really does not have much to show for their architecture" because "we've got no illnesses and no deaths" from this practice, according to the company CEOs.