Studies Fail to Quell Concerns Over Gas Treatment of Meat

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006

A bitter regulatory battle over the safety of a packaging system that can keep meat looking fresh long past its shelf life is escalating, amid complaints that the industry misinterpreted recent research reports to bolster its case.

At issue is the growing practice of spiking sealed packages of meat with small doses of carbon monoxide. The gas is harmless at the concentrations being used, but it can keep meat looking bright red and fresh even as it spoils.

In a series of largely unpublicized decisions, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration have allowed use of the gas in various packaging systems. Proponents, including the three major meat producers, say the process is safe and will help reduce the $1 billion the industry loses every year from having to discount or discard meat that has begun to turn brown but is still safe to eat.

Opponents, including consumer groups and a company that makes a competing preservation product, charge that the process, banned by the European Union, can deceive consumers into thinking meat is fresher than it is.

In addition, the opponents say, date labels that the USDA requires for the treated meat -- which instruct consumers to "use or freeze" treated ground beef within 21 days after the package was sealed -- give the public false assurance the meat will remain unspoiled that long. Although the government does not require "use or freeze by" dates on meats not treated with carbon monoxide, most packagers use them anyway -- with time scales generally in the range of 11 to 14 days for ground meat.

Kalsec Inc., a Kalamazoo, Mich., maker of spice extracts, has petitioned the FDA and the USDA to ban the process. Its rosemary extracts have long been used to slow the browning of meat -- though only by a couple of days -- in a process that also involves pumping high levels of oxygen into the package. Extract sales have begun to decline as packagers switch to carbon monoxide.

Of the new studies, the two most thorough were conducted by researchers at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. They were presented last month at a scientific meeting, and the results were announced in a university news release that proclaimed, "Despite Carbon Monoxide, Beef Consumers Still Safe."

In one study, microbiologist Mindy Brashears inoculated meat with disease-causing bacteria and compared the microbes' growth in different packaging systems. The results showed that meat sealed in packages with carbon monoxide had less bacterial growth than meat wrapped in air with traditional plastic wrap.

Randy Huffman, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute, said Brashears's work vindicates the carbon monoxide process.

But in an interview, Brashears said the benefit was only in comparison with traditional packaging. Carbon monoxide showed no advantage over meat sealed in high oxygen with Kalsec's extracts.

In the second Texas Tech study, J. Chance Brooks, an assistant professor of meat science, asked a panel of trained sniffers to judge the freshness of meat of various ages that had been stored in different packaging systems. He concluded that consumers would not be deceived into eating spoiled meat that had been kept red by carbon monoxide because it, too, has a distinctive smell when it spoils.

"You cannot mask odor," Brooks said.

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