By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006
Picture two steaks on a grocer's shelf, each hermetically sealed in clear plastic wrap. One is bright pink, rimmed with a crescent of pearly white fat. The other is brown, its fat the color of a smoker's teeth.
Which do you reach for?
The meat industry knows the answer, which is why it has quietly begun to spike meat packages with carbon monoxide.
The gas, harmless to health at the levels being used, gives meat a bright pink color that lasts weeks. The hope is that it will save the industry much of the $1 billion it says it loses annually from having to discount or discard meat that is reasonably fresh and perfectly safe but no longer pretty.
But the growing use of carbon monoxide as a "pigment fixative" is alarming consumer advocates and others who say it deceives shoppers who depend on color to help them avoid spoiled meat. Those critics are challenging the Food and Drug Administration and the nation's powerful meat industry, saying the agency violated its own rules by allowing the practice without a formal evaluation of its impact on consumer safety.
"This meat stays red and stays red and stays red," said Don Berdahl, vice president and laboratory director at Kalsec Foods in Kalamazoo, Mich., a maker of natural food extracts that has petitioned the FDA to ban the practice.
If nothing else, Berdahl and others say, carbon-monoxide-treated meat should be labeled so consumers will know not to trust their eyes.
The legal offensive has the meat industry seeing red. Officials deny their foes' claim that carbon monoxide is a "colorant" -- a category that would require a full FDA review -- saying it helps meat retain its naturally red color.
Besides, industry representatives say, color is a poor indicator of freshness as meat turns brown from exposure to oxygen long before it goes bad.
"When a product reaches the point of spoilage, there will be other signs that will be evidenced -- for example odor, slime formation and a bulging package -- so the product will not smell or look right," said Ann Boeckman, a lawyer with the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson. It represents Precept Foods LLC, a joint venture between Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. and Hormel Foods Corp. that helped pioneer the technology.
Much is at stake. The U.S. market in "case ready" meats -- those packaged immediately after slaughter, eliminating the need for butchers at grocery stores -- is approaching $10 billion and growing, said Steve Kay of Cattle Buyers Weekly, which tracks the industry from Petaluma, Calif. Tyson Foods, for example -- one of three meat packagers that has received a green light from the FDA to use carbon monoxide -- just opened a $100 million plant in Texas to churn out more case-ready "modified atmosphere" packaged meats, Kay said.
No one knows how much carbon-monoxide-treated meat is being sold; the companies involved are privately held or keep that information secret. But the potential is seen as great. The new technology "will finally make this the case-ready revolution, rather than the case-ready evolution," said Mark Klein, director of communications for Cargill's meat business.
It is a revolution some want stopped in its tracks.
"We feel it's a huge consumer right-to-know issue," said Donna Rosenbaum of Safe Tables Our Priority, an advocacy group in Burlington, Vt., created after four children died and hundreds became sick after eating tainted hamburgers from Jack in the Box restaurants in 1992 and 1993. Last month, the Burlington group and the Consumer Federation of America wrote to the FDA in support of a ban.
At the core of the issue is how the FDA has assessed companies' requests to use carbon monoxide in their packaging.
It started about five years ago, when Pactiv Corp. of Lake Forest, Ill., urged the FDA to declare the approach "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS -- a regulatory category that allows a firm to proceed with its plans without public review or formal agency "approval."
The FDA told Pactiv in 2002 it had no argument with the proposal. In 2004, Precept Foods received a similar letter, and recently Tyson did as well.
The FDA has also deemed carbon monoxide GRAS for keeping tuna looking fresh.
Kalsec acknowledges having an economic interest in fighting the practice. The company sells extracts of rosemary and other natural essences that help block the oxidation that turns meat brown. Its products have allowed meat packagers to use high-oxygen atmospheres in sealed packages to maintain freshness without having to worry about browning.
That is a market that could largely disappear as packagers switch to low-oxygen atmospheres with carbon monoxide -- an approach that keeps meat looking red not just longer, but almost indefinitely.
But Kalsec, and the consumer advocates who have signed on to the fight, say it is not just the market in extracts that is at risk.
They note that the European Union has banned the use of carbon monoxide as a color stabilizer in meat and fish. A December 2001 report from the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Food concluded that the gas (whose chemical abbreviation is "CO") did not pose a risk as long as food was kept cold enough during storage and transport to prevent microbial growth. But should the meat become inadvertently warmer at some point, it warned, "the presence of CO may mask visual evidence of spoilage."
How is it, Berdahl and others ask, that something can be deemed "generally recognized as safe" when there is enough scientific debate over the issue to warrant a ban in Europe?
"I just picture a refrigerator truck breaking down in Arizona and sitting there for an afternoon. Then, 'Hey, we got it repaired and nobody knows the difference,' and there you go."
Opponents also say the FDA was wrong to consider carbon monoxide a color fixative rather than a color additive -- a crucial decision because additives must pass a rigorous FDA review. They note that freshly cut meat looks purplish red, and that the addition of carbon monoxide -- which binds to a muscle protein called myoglobin -- turns it irreversibly pink.
Proponents of the gas counter that meat turns from purple to red just from sitting in air, and that CO prevents the next step, in which meats turn brown. They also say consumers should pay attention to "sell or freeze by" dates as the best indicator of freshness.
George H. Pauli, associate director for science and policy in the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, defended the agency's decisions. "In general, statute says you cannot use [substances] in a deceptive manner, and the question is what is a deceptive manner," Pauli said.
He emphasized that the agency has never formally approved the gas's use, but rather looked at information provided by the companies and decided not to object.
"We said, 'Thank you, you've helped inform us,' " Pauli said.
That is what has opponents most upset.
"The FDA should not have accepted carbon monoxide in meat without doing its own independent evaluation of the safety implications," Elizabeth Campbell, former head of the FDA's office of food labeling, wrote in a statement released in November.
Bucky Gwartney, executive director for research and knowledge management for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, chafes at the idea that the industry is trying to fool consumers.
"It would be ludicrous for a company to adopt a process that would undermine what we all want, which is to assure that food is safe," Gwartney said. "Maybe it needs to be more transparent and public," he acknowledged. "If that's what we need to do, we'll probably do that as an industry."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.