Carbon monoxide use 'safe' says industry body

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

The issue over the use of carbon monoxide additives in meat
continues to simmer in the US, with an industry body claiming that
the potential food scare is a myth created by consumer groups and
companies acting out of self-interest.

In a letter filed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the American Meat Institute (AMI) urged the regulator to speed up its overview of a petition to rescind its approval of the use of carbon monoxide to keep meat looking red and fresh.

The petition was filed Michigan-based Kalsec, maker of a line of herbal extracts that retard the effects of oxidation and thus competes with carbon monoxide meat packaging systems.

Carbon monoxide is used in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) as a technique for maintaining food quality. By altering the atmospheric conditions within the package, products can have a longer shelf life.

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 the shelf-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 their markets.

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 the natural aging and spoilage of meats, according to Kalsec's petition. The company claims this masking effect could deceive consumers into buying or eating bad meat.

Since the petition was made the FDA has faced mounting criticism from consumer groups over it decision in 2004 to allow food processors to use the gas. Some lawmakers have also called on the FDA to review its decision. The moves could end up with the US food regulator rescinding its decision and depriving processors of a means of making their products look attractive.

The AMI says carbon monoxide is a colour stabilizer and not a colour additive. The difference is important. The Kalsec petition claims that the FDA erred when it permitted the gas to be classified a "Generally Recognized as Safe" because the regulator determined that nitrite imparts color to meat and is therefore an unapproved color additive. The precedent also applies to carbon monoxide, Kalsec argues.

The AMI counters that the FDA does consider nitrite to "impart colour" to meat and so does not provide a precedent for carbon monoxide.

The organization also argues that carbon monoxide does not deceive consumers into thinking an unsafe meat product is fresh, as claimed by Kalsec.

"Meat packaged using these systems includes a prominent use-by or freeze by date and federally mandated safe handling labels that provide consumers with all the information they need to ensure the product is safe all the way to the table,"​ stated Patrick Boyle, AMI's president. "Kalsec's claims that these products deceive the consumer aren't about red meat. Their claims are red herrings. They are trying to suggest a problem exists when experts - including the FDA which has reviewed these technologies three times - says it is safe, appropriate and not deceptive."

According to Boyle, temperature abuse during distribution is extremely rare. However, if such temperature abuse occurred, packages would bulge noticeably, would exhibit a distinct odor and meat would develop a slimy texture.

"This petition is not about food safety, although the petition tries to make it seem so,"​ Boyle stated. "It is a calculated move to discredit a competing technology. Carbon monoxide packaging systems stand to make obsolete Kalsec's product. That's what this entire petition and accompanying PR campaign are all about."

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 food safety 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.

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