By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006; A08
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.
Huffman said the results confirmed the industry's long-standing claim that smell is a better indicator of spoilage than color. The industry says consumers should use smell and the "use or freeze by" date as the best indicators of whether meat is fresh.
But 17 percent of the trained panelists in Brooks's study detected "unpleasant odors" in carbon-monoxide-treated meat that had been in a refrigerated case for just 14 days, calling into question the products' 21-day freshness claim.
Don Berdahl, vice president and laboratory director at Kalsec, said those findings are in sync with his own less formal study. Berdahl went to supermarkets and bought more than 100 packages of ground beef -- some packaged with carbon monoxide and others with high oxygen and Kalsec's extracts. He put them all in a cooler and took them to S&J Laboratories Inc. of Portage, Mich.
Documents Kalsec submitted to the FDA and the USDA on June 14 reported that the samples treated with carbon monoxide had much higher bacterial counts, on average, than the others. In some samples, the filing notes, "the high bacterial levels were indicative of spoilage, even though the meat was within the labeled 'use or freeze by' date listed on the package."
The July issue of Consumer Reports describes a similar finding. The magazine's investigators took bacterial counts on 10 samples of locally purchased ground beef and steaks that had been treated with the gas. All the meat looked red, but two had spoiled by their "use or freeze by" dates and one "was on the brink of spoilage" one day before its stamped date.
Berdahl acknowledged that both his study and the one by Consumer Reports have limited value. Among other issues, the only carbon-monoxide-treated meats he could purchase were closer to their "use by" dates than the other samples, which might account for their higher bacteria counts. Nonetheless, he said, that raises the question of why the USDA allows gas-treated ground beef to be labeled fresh for 21 days.
The USDA allowed that limit for carbon-monoxide-treated meat based on data presented by Minnesota-based Precept Foods LLC, a major proponent and user of the process.
The problem, Berdahl said, is that real life does not mimic the ideal conditions in Precept's studies, in which meat was kept at or below the recommended 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Studies have found that one-third of store refrigerators are at 45 degrees or higher, 5 percent are warmer than 55 degrees and one-fifth of home refrigerators are above 50 degrees.
Food-safety officials have repeatedly said that their regulatory decisions are supposed to reflect real, rather than ideal, conditions.
Huffman of the Meat Institute dismissed Berdahl's suggestion that carbon-monoxide-treated meat is at increased risk of being spoiled by its "use or freeze by" date.
"Well over 100 million packages of [the product] have been sold and consumed in the U.S." he said, and none has been linked to any outbreak of food poisoning or store returns. He called the issue a "manufactured controversy" and the risks "hypothetical."
Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, and Robert C. Post, USDA director of labeling and consumer protection, said the agencies are reviewing Kalsec's petition, including the new data, but could not say how long that will take.
With the agencies also now considering a new application from a meat company to use higher concentrations of carbon monoxide than are currently used, several consumer groups are saying it is time to make the reviews public.
"What's been thwarted here is the process," said Donna Rosenbaum, a board member of Safe Tables Our Priority in Burlington, Vt., a food-safety group formed after several children died from eating tainted Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers. "We really should have had all this laid out by the agencies, but none of that was allowed to happen."
Some stores already refuse to sell the gas-treated meats, and the Chicago City Council has held two hearings on a proposal to ban them within city limits.