The color of meat

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Is preserving the red color of meat by means of incorporating miniscule amounts of carbon monoxide in certain modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) an effort to deceive consumers into buying products they otherwise might shun? Or does it simply help create, for a technology with long-proved benefits to the consumer, a level playing field with alternative and arguably less beneficial means of packaging and displaying meat in the refrigerated case? These questions were at the center of a Nov. 13 hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations under the Chairman Bart Stupak of Michigan.

Mr. Stupak left no doubt as to where he lined up on the controversy.

"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 asserted.

Jeffrey M. Ettinger, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Hormel Foods Corp., Austin, Minn., said consumers are not being deceived by the red color.

"This product is branded with our Hormel brand," he said. "The last thing we would do is enter a category with a new product, put our brand on it, and expect that people would have a bad experience."

Nevertheless, the hearing Mr. Stupak convened drew together all parties involved in the debate.

Dr. Daniel Engeljohn, deputy assistant administrator, office of policy, program and employee development of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, said carbon monoxide is used to stabilize the color pigment of meat when it is red and most appealing to consumers. He added, "Carbon monoxide does not become a part of the product and dissipates as the package is opened. This is unlike other ingredients used to stabilize the red color of meat, such as citric acid, sodium ascorbate and rosemary extract, all of which actually do become a part of the product and may have a lasting effect on product color even after the packaging is removed."

Dr. Engeljohn said the use of carbon monoxide as a component of modified atmosphere packaging was accepted as "generally recognized as safe (GRAS)" by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002. The F.S.I.S. subsequently decided in 2004 in response to a GRAS notice submitted by Precept Foods, L.L.C. that carbon monoxide was suitable in modified atmosphere packaging but only when a use-by or freeze-by date is applied.

Dr. David Acheson, the F.D.A.’s assistant commissioner for food protection, confirmed the F.D.A. carefully reviewed the GRAS notices from Precept Foods and Tyson Foods, Inc., regarding their intended use of carbon monoxide in MAP systems, as well as other available relevant information, and decided not to challenge "the notifiers’ determinations that their uses were GRAS." Dr. Acheson said, "This particular issue is not a safety concern even remotely high on our radar screen."

Representatives of two consumer groups — Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.) and Food & Water Watch — asserted maintaining a meat’s red color through use of carbon monoxide could mask spoilage or problems with meat that could pose health risks.

"Our concern is that the safety of the meat packaged in this manner might be severely compromised and the consumer would never know it because it would still look fresh," said Nancy Donley, president of S.T.O.P.

Both Ms. Donley and Wenonah Hauter, executive director, Food & Water Watch, said there should be clear labeling advising the consumer that carbon monoxide was used in packaging to maintain the bright red color of the meat and that color should not be considered an indicator of freshness. The label should state further that the consumer should use the product by its use/freeze-by date and that to do otherwise would be unsafe. Ms. Hauter indicated her support for legislation introduced by Mr. Stupak in July that addresses the labeling concerns.

Gregory Page, chief executive officer, Cargill, affirmed the benefits of low-oxygen MAP in extending shelf life and wholesomeness of products and limiting potential contamination from additional human handling before purchase. But consumers could be put off by the purplish color of meat packaged by means of a low-oxygen MAP system that does not include carbon monoxide to maintain a red color.

"We want consumers to have all the benefits of MAP," Mr. Page said. "But to do so, the package must be as attractive as competing products in the case."

Mr. Page said he understood committee members were concerned consumers may not fully understand that color is not the only indicator of freshness.

"For this reason, we will add wording to our label, pending U.S.D.A. approval, to include the statement: ‘Color is not an indicator of freshness. Please refer to use or freeze-by dates.’ We believe this effectively addresses the concerns of the committee in protecting pubic health, while not undermining the adoption of the safety and convenience offered through case-ready packaging."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, November 27, 2007, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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