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February 22, 2006

BehindTheMedspeak: Episode 4 — Further explorations of the [gassed] meat space

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Sorry I'm running a little behind here: a day late and many more than one dollar short is how I'd characterize things.

But you're not here to listen to me whine and all: I mean, you can get that anywhere.

And probably do.

But I digress.

I just read in yesterday's New York Times, buried on page 12 of the main news section, a story by Marion Burros about the carbon monoxide meat treatment controversy.

Huh.

The Washington Post featured it on the front page in its story on Monday.

Perhaps they don't run as much advertising from the beef industry as the Times.

Nah, that couldn't be the reason... could it?

Anyway, the reason I'm beating this dead cow yet again is simply to find an excuse to put up the photo (above) that accompanied the Times article.

The caption for the photo reads, "Both of these steaks were red when bought on February 3. Kept refrigerated, they were then photographed on February 16. Why the difference? The [top] one was treated with a process that has some consumer groups angered."

But wait — there's more.

The Times story went on to state, referring to the steaks shown above, "And as of yesterday [Monday, February 20], other treated meat bought at the same time was still red despite having been left unrefrigerated on a kitchen counter since February 14."

Man, I don't want to inhale in that kitchen: can you imagine what meat purchased on February 3, refrigerated until February 14 and then left out at room temperature for six days must smell like?

Grody to the max.

And we're not talking about headroom.

Here's yesterday's Times story.

    Which Cut Is Older? (It's a Trick Question)

    If some of the meat in supermarkets is looking rosier than it used to, the reason is that a growing number of markets are selling it in airtight packages treated with a touch of carbon monoxide to help the product stay red for weeks.

    This form of "modified atmosphere packaging," a technique in which other gases replace oxygen, has become more widely used as supermarkets eliminate their butchers and buy precut, "case-ready" meat from processing plants.

    The reason for its popularity in the industry is clear.

    One study, conducted at Oklahoma State University for the Cattlemen's Beef Board in 2003, said retailers lost at least $1 billion a year as meat turned brown from exposure to oxygen, because, though it might still be fairly fresh and perfectly safe, consumers simply judged meat's freshness by its color.

    The carbon monoxide is itself harmless at the levels being used in the treated packaging.

    But opponents say that the process, which is also used to keep tuna rosy, allows stores to sell meat that is no longer fresh, and that consumers would not know until they opened the package at home and smelled it.

    Labels do not note whether meat has been laced with carbon monoxide.

    The Food and Drug Administration approved use of the process in 2004.

    The Washington Post reported in its Monday editions that Kalsec, a Michigan producer of a natural food extract that helps slow the discoloring of the meat but does not "fix" it in the same way as carbon monoxide, had petitioned the agency to reverse that decision.

    The Consumer Federation of America and the advocacy group Safe Tables Our Priority have written a letter to the agency in support of the petition because, they say, the bright red color could mask spoilage and dangerous bacteria in older meat or meat that has not been kept at the proper temperature.

    Supermarket chains including A.&P. and Pathmark do not carry the treated meat, but it is showing up with increasing frequency elsewhere.

    In New York City, it is sold at 30 Gristede's stores, at D'Agostino markets under the labels Laura's Lean Beef and Creekstone's, and at the Morton Williams stores in the Associated chain.

    A spokeswoman for Safeway did not respond to phone calls and e-mail messages about sale of the treated meat there, but it was available at a Safeway market in Bethesda, Md., earlier this month.

    SuperTarget stores are also selling it, and Wal-Mart reports carrying it in 150 stores.

    "This is what is going to happen in the meat business," said John A. Catsimatidis, chairman and chief executive of Gristede's.

    "The meat looks great. It looks as red as the day it was cut."

    Processors say treated ground meat can be sold for 28 days after leaving the plant, and solid cuts for 35 days.

    The agribusiness company Cargill says it has sold 100 million packages in the last year.

    Randy Huffman of the American Meat Institute Foundation, an industry group, said, "The primary benefit in providing this product to consumers is the red color they have grown to expect."

    In a firsthand look at the treated meat, a package of a conventionally wrapped rib steak and one with the carbon monoxide were both red when bought on Feb. 3 near Washington.

    They were then kept refrigerated.

    By Feb. 16, when they were photographed for the pictures that appear with this article, the conventional meat was brown, but the treated meat was still rosy.

    And as of yesterday, other treated meat bought at the same time was still red despite having been left unrefrigerated on a kitchen counter since Feb. 14.

    Some food scientists who approve of other forms of modified atmosphere packaging as a way of extending a product's life say this form of it can be unsafe.

    Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, says one study found that when meat in modified packages that included carbon monoxide was stored at 10 degrees above the proper temperature, salmonella grew more easily.

    Representative John D. Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has asked the F.D.A. to explain its approval of the process.

    "It's just common sense that when consumers buy meat, they use color as an important indicator of its freshness," Mr. Dingell said in an e-mail message to a reporter.

    "For F.D.A. to rely on a promise of some stamp on the package that says 'use or freeze by' is just naïve."

********************

This just in at 4:14 p.m. today: This morning's Washington Post featured another story on the growing controversy about gassing beef.

Rick Weiss, who wrote Monday's Post story, also authored this one, which you can read here or, if you're too lazy too click, below.

    Studies Attest to Buyers' Focus on Color of Meat

    A Food and Drug Administration official indicated yesterday that she was unaware of any scientific studies showing that the color of a piece of meat is central to a shopper's decision to buy it or not -- even though a petition recently filed with the agency describes several such studies.

    In a telephone news conference yesterday, Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, sought to allay consumer concerns about the safety and freshness of the nation's meat supply after revelations in The Washington Post that a growing proportion of prepackaged meats in the United States are spiked with carbon monoxide -- a gas that keeps even rotten meat looking red and fresh.

    The agency has been asked to ban the practice, but Tarantino defended the FDA's decision to classify it as "generally recognized as safe," which allowed the meatpacking industry to use the gas without seeking formal FDA approval.

    Carbon monoxide "does not reduce the safety of meat," Tarantino said, referring to meat-company-sponsored studies indicating that treated meat is not more likely to harbor harmful bacteria than conventionally packaged meat.

    That aspect of safety is essentially undisputed.

    But Tarantino appeared unacquainted with a significant body of data -- some of it generated by the meat industry -- indicating that red color is a central cue used by shoppers to determine the freshness of meats, which are increasingly sold in sealed, "modified atmosphere" packages.

    The issue of how consumers make their choices is central to the argument made by Kalsec Inc. of Kalamazoo, Mich., that the use of carbon monoxide to keep meat red is a "deceptive practice."

    Kalsec sells natural extracts that slow the browning of packaged meats -- a business threatened by the growing use of carbon monoxide.

    "If we had evidence that consumers would be misled into buying meat that was spoiled because of the use of this technology, that is something we'd be concerned about," Tarantino said.

    Asked if any scientific studies had quantified the importance of color for consumers making judgments about freshness, Tarantino had none to offer.

    But Kalsec's petition, filed with the agency in November, cites:

    • A 2001 Colorado State University study that concluded, "Consumers view color as one of the most important attributes of fresh beef when making a decision to purchase retail product."

    • A 1972 study published in the Journal of Food Science that concluded, "Consumer studies have shown that physical appearance of a retail cut in the display case is the most important factor determining retail selection of meat products."

    • A 1996 study in the Journal of Animal Science that stated, "Meat color is the main factor affecting beef product acceptability at retail points of purchase."

    • A National Pork Board/American Meat Science Association fact sheet, which states that "meat color is the single greatest appearance factor that determines whether or not a meat cut will be purchased."

    Tarantino said the agency was considering Kalsec's petition, along with documents filed by meat interests opposed to Kalsec's claim that carbon monoxide should be considered a "color additive."

    That classification would require a public review of safety data.

    She would not predict when the agency's review would be complete.

    Tarantino also said she did not know if the agency would respond on time to a letter sent Feb. 9 to acting FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach from Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) , which requested answers by tomorrow to numerous questions about the handling of the carbon monoxide issue.

    On Monday, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he would introduce legislation to ban carbon monoxide use in packaged meats if the FDA does not immediately revoke its earlier decision.

    FDA spokeswoman Susan Bro encouraged shoppers to "use the skills you have as a consumer to be aware of what is a safe and fresh meat product."

********************

I wonder if carbon monoxide kills prions?

Just an idle thought.

Might be a good thing for the beef industry to look into to keep its carbon monoxide meat treatment from being banned.

February 22, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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