E-mails surface about safety of meat packaging

The controversial practice of adding carbon monoxide to meat packages took a beating Tuesday when members of Congress said federal regulators may have relied on faulty data when deciding to allow the packaging, which keeps meat red even after it has spoiled.

A congressional subcommittee Tuesday revealed e-mails from foodmakers in which workers questioned study data that lawmakers say went to government reviewers, who allowed the packaging in 2004.

In the e-mails, a Hormel employee said he was "puzzled" that the data didn't produce a "clear correlation" between microbial counts, gas and odor in tested meats — as would be expected. He was responding to a Cargill employee who, in another e-mail, questioned why meat with more odor had microbial counts similar to less smelly meat.

Hormel's Vice President Phil Minerich defended the data and said it showed that the packaging controlled microbial growth better than expected.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2004 first said that the packaging might deceive consumers and that freshness dates weren't sufficient protection. The agency reversed itself six weeks later after Hormel and Cargill, via a joint venture, provided more data.

The USDA said Tuesday that it will look again at the data it reviewed in 2004 to see if it was the same data that was questioned by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who held the hearing and who has led the congressional opposition to the technology. The agency will then reassess the data, spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said after the hearing. Prior to the hearing, she said the USDA had "no knowledge about the e-mails or concerns the company raised internally."

Carbon monoxide has been added to some meat packages since 2004 by Hormel and Cargill. The harmless dose of gas keeps meat an appealing red far longer than other packaging. Numerous food-safety scientists say the packaging doesn't pose safety concerns. Opponents say consumers may unwittingly buy old meat that looks fresh and not detect spoilage until they smell the meat at home.

The Food and Drug Administration and the USDA allowed carbon monoxide packaging for meats after the foodmakers provided data showing it met conditions for substances "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS.

Kalsec, a Michigan company that sells a competing technology, has asked the FDA to ban the packaging, claiming that the agency didn't properly evaluate it. Some supermarket chains, including Safeway and Giant Food, have dropped the packaging under pressure from Michigan lawmakers Stupak and Democratic Rep. John Dingell, who are reviewing food-safety laws.

Target wants to label the packages telling consumers that the gas has been used. Cargill and Hormel on Tuesday proposed labels telling consumers to look for use- or freeze-by dates on packages and not to consider color as an adequate indicator of freshness. Only carbon-monoxide-packed meats need freshness dates.

FDA and USDA collaborate on some GRAS reviews; FDA for safety, USDA for suitability of use. Hormel CEO Jeffrey Ettinger says Hormel has sold 23 million packages of carbon monoxide-packed meat and had 48 complaints of odor or bad flavors, a ratio he called very low. "Consumers are not eating bad product or being deceived," he testified Tuesday.