Since 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has allowed select meat packers to treat meats with carbon monoxide in order to keep meats bright red well beyond the time when they'd naturally begin to brown. The process is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, which means that carbon monoxide was not required to go through the usual safety process required for color additives.
Now some consumer groups argue that the practice is unsafe, because many consumers use the color of meat as a prime indicator of spoilage. A citizen petition to the FDA initiated by Kalsec Inc., a Kalamazoo, Mich.-based manufacturer of a rival technology which uses a natural rosemary extract to maintain redness, claims that harmful bacteria, including Salmonella, Campylobacter and E-coli 0157:H7, can be found in treated meat even though it may appear and smell fresh.
The FDA has recognized this safety concern, stating that the inhibition of spoilage bacteria means that "tell-tale signs signaling that the product is no longer fit for consumption will not occur."
On Tuesday, Nov. 13, the CEOs of Hormel and Cargill, two store-ready meat packers who use the carbon monoxide process, testified before Congress that there's no pubic health risk. However, the companies said for the first time that they're willing to label their carbon monoxide-treated meats with a label reading, "Color is not an accurate indicator of freshness."
That wasn't enough for consumer groups, who pointed out packages of year-old meat on the witness table —meat that still appeared pink and fresh. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch, told the FDA that the process was simply a way for the meat industry to cut its estimated billion dollar annual losses from discolored meats, which consumers refuse to purchase. "At worst, it's dangerous, and at best, it's a consumer rip-off," she said of the process.
But a Cargill spokesman told the food Web site just-food.com, "Countless scientists have attested that this technology actually promotes food safety."
Many chains and some producers have already made a decision about the process. Safeway, Giant Food, and Stop & Shop stores have each made recent announcements that they will not sell carbon monoxide-treated products. Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat and poultry processor, said it will stop using the technology; Target stores have requested permission from the Agriculture Department to use a special label indicating that the meat has been treated with carbon monoxide.