Carbon monoxide keeps meat red longer; is that good?

ByJulie Schmit, USA TODAY

— -- 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."

In its response a month later, Safeway said it would drop the packaging, explaining the committee's concerns may have "raised concerns with customers who do not have the benefit of the background on this process."

Tyson Foods tsn in August curtailed use of the packaging after it, too, got a letter. Tyson cited "lack of customer demand."

Giant Food, a Maryland-based chain, dropped it this month. It said, "Some customers found the retention of the red color … to be confusing." Kroger and Publix have also shunned the packaging.

But Hormel hrl, one of the technology's biggest backers along with foodmaker Cargill, says it's put out 120 million packages of product using carbon monoxide and has a consumer complaint ratio that rivals "the Maytag repairman," Hormel Vice President Phil Minerich said Tuesday in a hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture.

Opponents say consumers don't know they're buying carbon-monoxide-infused packages. Labels don't disclose it, and the packaging looks like other meats packed in what foodmakers call "modified atmosphere packaging," or MAP.

In MAP packages, foodmakers use a combination of gases — nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide — to battle the aging effects that regular air has on foods. Leafy-green companies and potato-chipmakers use MAP, but they don't use carbon monoxide. Kalsec's rosemary extract is used by meat producers in a non-carbon-monoxide MAP format.

Stupak, who chairs the House's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, has co-authored a bill that would require a safety notice on meat, seafood and poultry using carbon monoxide packaging.

He says committee investigators recently found healthy-looking imported fish packaged with carbon monoxide to be decomposed. The proposed notice would warn consumers to "discard any product with an unpleasant odor, slime, or a bulging package."

No 'alarmist' label needed?

Riley of the meat institute says there's no evidence an "alarmist" label is needed. "Packaging gases have never been labeled," Minerich told lawmakers Tuesday.

The hearing — whose witnesses included Cargill and Tyson representatives — provided a more supportive atmosphere for the meat industry than hearings held by Dingell and Stupak. Kalsec refused an invitation to testify, and several consumer groups complained that they weren't invited.

The FDA has so far allowed carbon monoxide packaging for beef, pork and raw tuna when used as an ingredient in tasteless smoke, used as a preservative.

Other regulators have been tougher. The European Union doesn't allow it for meat and tuna. Canada bans it in fish; Singapore does for fresh tuna.

Kalsec says a big concern is that meat not stored at a proper temperature might spoil but still look good. The European Union had the same worry in 2001 when a committee said carbon monoxide in packaged meats posed "no health concerns" as long as meats were kept at proper temperatures. If not, "The presence of carbon monoxide may mask visual evidence of spoilage," it said.

Kalsec also says that the FDA should have treated the carbon monoxide as a "color additive," which requires a rigorous FDA safety review. Instead, the FDA allows it under regulations for substances that are "generally recognized as safe," based on evidence submitted by proponents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture shares the FDA's stance on the issue.

Kalsec Vice President Don Berdahl acknowledges that Kalsec has a financial interest in the battle. He says the company wants "a level playing field" and that "it's ridiculous the FDA has dropped the ball." Kalsec says it didn't testify Tuesday before the Agriculture Committee because its beef is with the FDA.

The FDA had no comment. It is reviewing Kalsec's petition.

The meat industry says Kalsec's additive argument is off-base, given a 25-year-old decision by the FDA to draw a distinction between products that "impart" color and those that "fix" color, which it says is what carbon monoxide does.

Kalsec's petition, the industry argues in filings to the FDA, should be "denied" as it is a "transparent, misguided and misleading attempt to challenge a competing product."

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