In the shadow of the Chinese import scare, U.S. consumers have won a victory. The retail giant Safeway, responding to pressure by public interest advocates and members of Congress, recently pulled carbon monoxide-treated meat from its shelves.
Carbon monoxide in meat? Unbelievably, in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture gave their blessing to a number of large meat packers (including Tyson, Hormel and Cargill Foods) to inject CO in their case-ready meat products. It is unlikely that CO injections themselves present a poison risk. But they pose a public-health and consumer-fraud hazard.
Treating packaged meat with CO extends its shelf life by keeping it red long after it begins to spoil. In fact, gassed meat holds its color for upward of one year, whereas CO-free packaged meat typically starts to turn after just 10 to 12 days on the shelf. It's easy to see why the meat industry likes CO: Gassed meat could save retailers $1 billion annually in lost sales resulting from that finicky consumer aversion to browning meat.
Why would the government permit this practice? After all, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act provides that a "food shall be deemed to be adulterated ... if damage or inferiority has been concealed in any manner; or if any substance has been added thereto or mixed or packed therewith so as to ... make it appear better or of greater value than it is." This bar on concealing adulteration is what drove the Agriculture Department to ban the use of paprika in fresh meat products in 1969. CO injections are no different: Their sole purpose is to conceal inferiority and damage.
According to a poll conducted by the Consumer Federation of America, the majority of consumers directly equate color with the freshness of their meat. That same poll found that more than three-quarters of U.S. consumers believe the use of CO in meat is deceptive, and more than two-thirds think gassed meat should be labeled. A leading meat scientist has observed that consumers "rate color as the most important trait in selecting fresh meat."
The proper way to keep meat red is by temperature control. Meat should be kept at or below the freezing point during distribution, and under 40 degrees Fahrenheit upon arrival at a retail store. When temperatures exceed 40, meat enters the "danger zone." It's not uncommon for temperatures in the display case at the grocery store to be as high as 50, which could cause premature spoilage and provide a nurturing environment for the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Because of color-preserving CO injections, such temperature-control failures are not apparent to the consumer.
That's why the Agriculture Department originally sent a letter to the FDA voicing concerns that CO-treated meat might mask spoilage and delude consumers. But two months later, the agency reversed its position. The USDA's final decision to endorse this deceptive and hazardous marketing practice was the result of closed-door meetings with industry officials - meetings that excluded public participation. The public has no way of knowing right now why the USDA turned tail. Food safety watchdogs are seeking agency records through the Freedom of Information Act to shine a light on the decision-making process that sanctioned CO-treated meat.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, has introduced a bill to ban CO in meat packaging. She has also called on the FDA to consider consumer behavior and conduct an independent investigation into the safety of CO. Right now, the FDA is relying solely on limited industry data in giving CO injections a clean bill of health. In addition, Reps. Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, and Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, have introduced a bill that would force the industry to label CO-treated meat, should the ban fail.
Before Safeway's decision to bar CO-gassed meat, a number of large retailers had already acknowledged the public health risks and consumer distaste for faux-fresh meat. Whole Foods, Wegmans, Publix, Super- fresh, Stop & Shop, Kroger, Pathmark and a handful of other grocers have refused to carry gassed meat. Good for them. But many distributors continue to carry CO-treated meat, and until the government says they can't, there's no way to eyeball the freshness of shelved meat. And that has consumers still seeing red.
Jacqueline Ostfeld is food and drug safety officer at the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection organization. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.