Industry defends M.A.P., F.D.A. to review data again

by Staff
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WASHINGTON ― During a Nov. 13 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Gregory Page and Jeffrey Ettinger, the chief executives of Cargill and Hormel Foods Corp., respectively, detailed the facts supporting the safety of meat packaged in low-oxygen modified atmosphere packaging systems utilizing minute amounts of carbon monoxide.

But despite scientific evidence supporting the safety of this technology, the Food and Drug Administration agreed to do an additional review of the data surrounding the technology to address lingering questions from some members of the subcommittee.

During the hearing, Mr. Page and Mr. Ettinger noted that companies such as theirs benefit from marketing products that are not only safe, but widely accepted by consumers, such as M.A.P. products.

Now in use for nearly four years and enjoying extraordinarily high levels of consumer acceptance, this packaging technology initially was thrust into the spotlight in 2006 as a result of a campaign waged by Kalsec, the maker of a competing and patented technology using rosemary extract to maintain meat’s red color ― in much the same way that low-oxygen packaging systems, which use minute amounts of carbon monoxide.

During the hearing, witnesses explained that meat in its natural state is purple. Oxygen causes meat to turn red but shortly thereafter to turn brown and ultimately develop off flavors. The combination of gases in the low-oxygen packaging systems maintains a longer shelf life, fresh flavor and the red color that consumers like and expect, A.M.I. reported.

In the face of tough questioning from subcommittee members, Mr. Page and Mr. Ettinger detailed the many benefits the packaging offers.

"Through a M.A.P. system, meat is packaged at a central processing plant and is then delivered to the retail grocery store in a tray covered with a protective film," Mr. Page said. "This helps eliminate the potential for cross-contamination that can come from human handling both at the retail store and in the home. The package is both leak-proof and tamper proof, adding additional consumer protections. As the committee is no doubt aware, many of the leading food scientists have submitted papers and testimony that show the superior freshness and food safety performance of this packaging."

Representative Michael Burgess of Texas expressed concern about the amount of time being devoted to examining a technology that already had been reviewed on numerous occasions by federal officials at both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the F.D.A. He asked Mr. Page and Mr. Ettinger how many illnesses had been associated with meat packaged in this system and the answer was zero.

Likewise, in a strongly-worded statement, Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee asked, "How many experts have to say that the use of carbon monoxide in meat packaging is not a food-safety issue before we believe them? This hearing has nothing to do with foodborne illnesses. Not one case of human illness has been reported due to consumption of spoiled food, so the case for public health risk cannot be made. I hope that we are not participating in a kangaroo court due to certain economic interests, under the guise of food and consumer safety."

U.S.D.A. and F.D.A. officials also provided testimony and defended the process they used to review the use of the packaging technology under the General Recognized as Safe or G.R.A.S. process.

In response to questions from Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, who suggested the F.D.A. should consider suspending its acceptance of the technology until it can review the technology again, David W.K. Acheson, M.D., director of F.D.A.’s Food Safety and Security staff, said: "F.D.A. has no concerns about CO in meat packaging."

Laura Tarantino, Ph.D., director of the F.D.A. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Office of Food Additive Safety, stressed that this packaging system stabilizes but not does not impart color and is therefore not regulated as a food additive. She detailed her staff’s ongoing review of the science surrounding the technology and defended their acceptance under the G.R.A.S. process.

"We haven’t seen any real evidence of a public health issue or a safety issue," she said.

Extensive questioning also focused on how consumers evaluate meat freshness. U.S.D.A. Food Safety and Inspection Service Deputy Assistant Administrator Dan Engeljohn, Ph.D., told the committee that in its review of the suitability of the packaging technology, the U.S.D.A. determined that in terms of how consumers evaluate meat freshness, "the overwhelming majority rely on use-by dates." He added that other factors like color are considered, but not to the extent of use-by dates, which are required on all meat packaged using low-oxygen M.A.P. technology.

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