Science set to end carbon monoxide packaging debate

By Sean Roach

- Last updated on GMT

Two scientific studies say carbon monoxide is safe to use in
modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) techniques, countering claims
by opponents that use of the gas could harm food safety.

The studies could calm consumer fears, raised by groups who claim that carbon monoxide makes meat appear fresher than it actually is by reacting with the meat pigment myoglobin to create carboxymyoglobin, a bright red pigment.

The opponents claim this masks signs indicating the aging and spoilage of meats leading consumers to believe meat is fresh and safe when it may not be.

With the findings in hand the American Meat Institute (AMI) has called on the opponents to concede their positions.

AMI has specifically targeted Kalsec, a Michigan based company that manufactures a competing meat preservation technique.

Kalsec, along with lobbying groups such as the Consumer Federation of America, have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ban the use of carbon monoxide in MAP.

In an interview with Mike Doyle, Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia (UGA), said the benefits of carbon monoxide MAP technology far outweighed arguments against the technique.

"I don't think that carbon monoxide packaging is a deceptive process at all,"​ Doyle said. "Certainly not from a safety standpoint."

Scientists at UGA contaminated meat samples with E. coli and packed them in a packaging that contained small amounts of carbon monoxide. A control sample was packed in traditional packaging without modifying the atmosphere.

When left in an environment of 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), meat packaged without MAP technology had almost 12 times as many E. coli cells.

"I think that carbon monoxide packaging technology deserves an award, from a scientific perspective this is a profound idea,"​ said Doyle. "If manufacturers have a reasonable date on the product and it looks good, smells good and tastes good… well what's wrong with that?"

Another study conducted by Texas Tech University in Lubbock found that the use of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in MAP dramatically decreased the growth of pathogenic bacteria on meat.

In the Texas Tech report, scientist Mindy Brashears found that: "beef inoculated with pathogenic bacteria, Salmonella and E. coli, and then packaged with carbon monoxide had less pathogenic bacteria after 14 days than similarly inoculated beef wrapped in traditional packaging without carbon monoxide."

Last February the FDA was forced to defend its policy to allow carbon monoxide additives in meat after petitions from consumer groups.

Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA's office of food additive safety, cited the benefits carbon monoxide, adding that color is not a failsafe way to ensure the freshness of meat.

Tarantino suggested consumers were safer smelling for foul odors and examining packaging for bulges from gas buildup.

Of the estimated 100 million packages of carbon monoxide meat that has been sold and consumed in the US none has been linked to a pathogenic outbreak, the FDA said.

This is not the first time that the AMI has openly attacked Kalsec and carbon monoxide opponents.

In May 2006, AMI's Mark Dopp, addressed the Chicago City Council, which was debating a measure to ban carbon monoxide additives within the city.

Dopp referred to the issue as a profit-driven battle between Kalsec and carbon monoxide proponents.

"At its core, Kalsec's attempt to limit or prohibit the use of low oxygen modified atmosphere packaging systems is about market share and monopoly, not food safety,"​ Dopp told the council: "Kalsec stands to lose market share because the meat processing companies that I represent have expressed an interest in and are moving toward a competing technology."

The MAP method works by replacing the air with a mixture of inert gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

The low-oxygen mix extends the shelf life of the meat, vegetables and other perishable foods, a big plus for packagers looking to ensure food safety and extend their markets.

However, the effect of carbon monoxide on the appearance of meat and tuna has led the European Union to ban the use of carbon monoxide since 2003.

Several other countries including Japan, Canada and Singapore have also banned the use of carbon monoxide in packaging tuna.

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