A recent four-hour Congressional hearing on safety issues of meat and fish treated with carbon monoxide (CO) under modified atmospheric packaging (MAP) raised serious issues about the FDA’s lack of internal and external communication for its OK to use CO to extend the “fresh” appearance of meat far beyond its actual “use-by” or “freeze-by” dates. The hearing, led by Representatives John D. Dingell (D-MI), chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak (D-MI), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, included witnesses from the FDA, USDA, FSIS, consumer groups and CEOs from processors in-cluding Cargill, Hormel, Anova Food and others.

Conclusions of this panel indicated that the FDA never performed its own independent study to show the use of CO was “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe) in MAP, nor did the FDA create any official regulations concerning CO’s use by food processors. Instead, tacit approval was given to processors to do their own research and then use the process. While CO used in this manner doesn’t necessarily pose a health risk to consumers, Stupak pointed out its use as a color preserver can be deceptive to consumers who may first look at color as an indicator of freshness rather than the use-by date. Dingell concluded that without regulations in place, everyone is at risk-consumers and processors. He added, “I think Food and Drug is not doing its job.”

Low-oxygen MAP, which has been successfully used for several years, typically removes almost all the oxygen (typically 0.5 to 2% remaining) from a container and replaces it with carbon dioxide (which inhibits certain microbial growth), maintains nitrogen and adds a fraction of a percent of CO-often less than  caused by grilling over a gas flame. Hormel CEO Jerry Ettinger testified about calls received on Hormel’s 800 number. “We’ve received no documented cases of foodborne illness out of 22-plus million packages sold,” he said. As a result of this panel, Hormel and Cargill have agreed to label foods treated with CO. Other processors and retail stores have agreed to stop selling products treated with CO.

Rather than depending on color or use-by dates, other possible solutions to indicate the freshness of meat include “smart labels.” These labels work on different parameters, but usually provide information down to the consumer level. For example, Paksense labels monitor time and temperature as a product goes through shipping channels and retail outlets. UPM Raflatac labels sense when the sealed atmosphere inside MAP has been compromised by a leak. Labels from FQSI directly monitor the gaseous by-products of bacteriological activity in meat and poultry packages, and indicate whether the food is safe to eat.