Carbon Monoxide Meat Treatment Faces Renewed Scrutiny

The leaders of two congressional committees have asked Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway to defend the practice of selling meat in low-oxygen modified atmosphere packaging containing carbon monoxide, a gas that retards spoilage and causes meats such as ground beef to appear fresher longer. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Bart Stupak,

WASHINGTON — The leaders of two congressional committees have asked Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway to defend the practice of selling meat in low-oxygen modified atmosphere packaging containing carbon monoxide, a gas that retards spoilage and causes meats such as ground beef to appear fresher longer.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, sent letters to Safeway, as wells as Tyson Foods, Pactiv Corp. and Precept Foods, a subsidiary of Hormel, “demanding that Safeway Stores and three major meat-packaging companies respond to concerns about the public health risks posed by meat treated with carbon monoxide.”

Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under its “Generally Recognized as Safe” categorization in 2004, the practice of packaging meat with carbon monoxide drew fire from the media in early 2006. The safety of the gas, as it's used in the treatment, has not been questioned. Rather, the fact that it can make meat appear redder and fresher for much longer than normal has led consumer groups to argue that the practice is deceptive and potentially unsafe, since shoppers typically judge freshness by visual inspection.

In February 2006, Cincinnati-based Kroger, the nation's largest conventional supermarket chain, discontinued the sale of meats packaged with carbon monoxide, citing “ambiguous” safety information regarding the process. Stupak and Dingell have indicated that they are targeting Safeway as the largest single supermarket chain still merchandising treated products.

Dingell has said that letters sent last year to FDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — requesting that treated products be barred from sale pending new safety assessments — were ignored. He is currently planning to have the House Committee on Energy and Commerce open an investigation into the FDA's entire “Generally Recognized as Safe” approval process.