WASHINGTON — Hormel Foods and Cargill Inc. have agreed to label any meat or fish products that have been treated with carbon monoxide. The decision was announced during a hearing arranged by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations last week.
“Hormel will comply with any labeling of this product that is determined to be necessary and fair through the legislative or regulatory process,” Jeffrey Ettinger, chief executive officer of Hormel, said during the hearing.
Carbon monoxide treatments — which preserve the “bloom,” or the fresh red color, of treated meats kept in Modified Atmosphere Packaging — were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2004 under the agency's “Generally Recognized As Safe” categorization.
However, the practice began drawing criticism from consumer groups by late 2005. While critics agree that carbon monoxide itself is harmless when used for these treatments, they have raised concerns that the treatments make meats look fresher than they are, and could mislead shoppers into buying expired or spoiled product.
In February 2006, Cincinnati-based Kroger, the nation's largest conventional supermarket chain, discontinued the sale of CO-treated meats, citing “ambiguous” safety information. Since then, Tyson Foods, Safeway, Giant Food and Stop & Shop have followed suit, by ceasing production of treated products or removing them from their stores.
Bart Stupak, D.-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, along with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, have been partly responsible for these moves, criticizing the practice as deceptive and pressuring major retailers and suppliers to justify its use. In June, they sent letters to Safeway, Tyson, Pactiv Corp. and Precept Foods, a subsidiary of Hormel, “demanding that [these companies] respond to concerns about the public health risks posed by meat treated with carbon monoxide.”
In a related development, retailer Target, which sells packaged meat in 210 SuperTarget locations, sent a preemptive letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeking permission to label CO-treated meats with a warning label.
“Because certain modified atmosphere packaging preserves the color of meat, Target is working to add labels to those products that encourage guests not to rely on color or the ‘use or freeze by’ date alone to judge the freshness of the product,” the company said in a statement.
Meat industry advocates, as well as representatives from the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, emphasized that the technology has not been responsible for any illnesses to date.