Carbon monoxide is often used in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) as a packaging technique for maintaining food quality.
The MAP method works by replacing the air with a mixture of inert gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The package is then heat sealed. The low-oxygen mix extends theshelf-life of the meat, vegetables and other perishable foods by up to 15 days from the normal five days, a big plus at a time when the market is working to ensure food safety and extend theirmarkets.
However, carbon monoxide also makes meat appear fresher than it actually is by reacting with the meat pigment myoglobin to create carboxymyoglobin, a bright red pigment that masks any of thenatural aging and spoilage of meats, according to a petition filed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by Michigan-based Kalsec.
The FDA approved the practice as safe for use with packaged last year in response to requests from two food companies. The EU prohibits food companies from using carbon monoxide.
Under current US regulation, processors do not have to indicate on the label that their meat products have been treated with carbon monoxide.
In a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Michigan-based Kalsec says the method can hide spoilage and lead to food safety problems.
"The use of carbon monoxide deceives consumers and creates an unnecessary risk of food poisoning by enabling meat and ground beef to remain fresh-looking beyond the point at which typicalcolor changes would indicate ageing or bacterial spoilage," Kalsec stated in its petition.
The petition urges the FDA to withdraw its July 2004 decision and related decisions allowing the use of carbon monoxide in meat packaging. The company argues that the FDA accepted the foodcompanies' applications using a formula known as "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS).
Under the GRAS application process the FDA does not conduct an independent safety investigation of its own, but instead relies on the notifiers' claims, research and documentation in considering the safety of a product or process in food.
"Carbon monoxide simulates the appearance of freshness, so consumers may actually believe meat is fresh and safe when it may be neither," stated Don Berdahl, Kalsec's vice presidentand technical director. "We hope the FDA acts quickly to end this deceptive, potentially dangerous practice.".
The company argues that consumers mainly chose their meat based on appearance, and specifically its color. The company says that the practice of treating meat with carbon monoxide could hide thegrowth of pathogens such as Clostridium Botulinum, Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7.
"If meat is bought spoiled, refrigerated improperly or used after these pathogens begin to grow, even proper cooking might not be sufficient to render the food safe to eat, because certainbacteria produce toxins that survive the cooking process," the company stated.
The company also argues that the FDA should have done its own independent testing of the companies' scientific claims. Kalsec claims the FDA also did not have legal authority to permit the use ofcarbon monoxide in fresh meat packaging because it is an unapproved and prohibited color additive.
The agency bypassed the required procedure for carbon monoxide to obtain a color additive designation, a necessary precondition for making it legal to use carbon monoxide in fresh meat packaging,the company stated.
The US department of agriculture's regulations prohibit the introduction of ingredients in fresh meat that function to conceal damage or inferiority, or give the appearance the product is of betteror greater value.
The use of carbon monoxide has been banned in other countries. In 2003, the EU prohibited the use of carbon monoxide for meat and tuna products. In its decision, the European Commission's foodsafety regulator stated that "the stable cherry-colour can last beyond the microbial shelf life of the meat and thus mask spoilage."
Several countries including Japan, Canada and Singapore also ban the use of carbon monoxide in tuna.
"At the very least, the public has a right to know about the use of carbon monoxide in their food," Berdahl stated. " If the FDA won't prohibit it, the government should require alabel that informs consumers about the presence of carbon monoxide and the health dangers it presents."
"The scientific evidence supports the safety of this packing technology," said James H. Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation. "It is unfortunate that thiscompetitive attack may create food safety concerns when there are none here."
The original application to the FDA to get approval for the use of carbon monoxide was submitted by Pactiv Corporation and Precept Foods.
The full text of the new Kalsec petition is available here.