STATS ARTICLES 2007

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A Scandal Over Meat Safety?
Trevor Butterworth, October 26, 2007
Michigan Democrats raise fears over  “revolutionary” meat packaging process that reduces risk of E. coli, keeps meat fresh longer. Food safety experts say politicians misleading public on science. Is a massive Washington lobbying effort by rival Michigan-based company behind smear campaign?

On September 13, Michael Doyle, a world-leading expert in food safety addressed the Canadian Meat Council symposium on “Advances in Antimicrobial Interventions for Quality Control.” Doyle, who is Regents Professor and Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, discussed a study that he and his colleague Dr. Li Ma had undertaken which showed that a popular wrapping system that vacuumed out air and added a tiny amount of carbon monoxide, nitrogen and carbon dioxide (known as MAP CO) could not only keep meat fresher for longer than conventionally wrapping, but could significantly retard the growth of the E. coli O157:H7 bacterium in ground beef when the meat was stored above the recommended temperature.

"MAP CO-treated meat is a revolutionary technology providing greater protection against foodborne pathogens and extended shelf life to fresh beef,” Doyle told the symposium.

And yet, despite E. coli O157:H7 being one of the leading causes of food-borne illnesses in the United States, with an estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths each year, and despite the potential reduction in wastage from meat staying fresher for significantly longer, MAP CO meat is being pulled from the shelves largely due to a campaign by two Michigan congressmen and various environmental groups claiming that the public is being deceived.

On June 25th, U.S. Rep John Dingell (D-MI), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, Rep Bart Stupak (D-MI), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, sent letters to Safeway Stores, Inc., Tyson Foods, Inc., Pactiv Corporation and Precept Foods LLC (Hormel Foods Corporation/Cargill Incorporated), which, as their press release noted, “questioned the companies’ practice of packing fresh meat in carbon monoxide, which artificially colors the product and disguises spoilage.”

In less than a month, Safeway dropped MAP CO packaged meat; and Reps Dingell and Stupak released another statement praising the company’s decision:

‘Americans place a great deal of trust in the hands of grocers and retailers to sell them safe and healthy products,’ said Dingell. ‘The practice of exposing meat to carbon monoxide deceives consumers and is a potential health hazard. I commend Safeway for its decision to stop selling these meats and I hope other grocers and meat packers will follow suit.’”

But according to food safety experts and microbiologists at leading academic food safety programs there is simply no science to support the charges made Reps Dingell and Stupak against MAP CO. It also turns out that Kalsec, a Michigan company with a rival but less effective method of preserving meat freshness, has spent around $850,000 to lobby Congress on food safety issues, with some of that money going specifically to lobby Reps Dingell and Stupak on MAP CO.

Is carbon monoxide (CO) a colorant?
In contrast to Rep’s Dingell and Stupak description of MAP CO (the acronym stands for “modified atmosphere packaging with carbon monoxide), scientists say the process is not an artificial way of coloring meat.

“Meat is muscle tissue,” explains Susan Brewer, Professor of Food Science at the University of Illinois, “and in an oxygen-deprived environment – inside an animal – it’s purple. For it to be red, it has to be exposed to air, and that’s the color consumers identify as fresh.”

But here’s the problem: exposure to air will turn refrigerated meat brown within a few days, and even though it may be perfectly safe to eat, consumers, typically, see the meat as spoiled. Unfortunately consumers are not ready to buy purple-colored oxygen-free vacuum-packed meat either (which is the way meat is packed for the wholesale industry).

“The red color has been shown many, many times to be critical to consumer selection and purchase at retail. So, for fresh meat in retail, oxygen exposure, either using oxygen permeable films or a high-oxygen package atmosphere has always been necessary,” says Joseph Sebranek, University Professor in the department of Animal Science, Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University (via email).

Modified atmosphere packaging has been around for years, but the key to implementing in wrapping meat for retail was to find a way of achieving the bright red color that consumers understood as signaling freshness. The solution was to add a miniscule quantity of carbon monoxide (CO) into a package that contains no oxygen. “The monoxide bonds to the exact site as the oxygen molecule,” says Brewer, “but the bond is much tighter – it’s stuck – and it keeps the meat a bright red color. It’s not a colorant per se.” The Food and Drug Administration an  the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have permitted MAP CO packaging of meat since February, 2002.

None of the experts interviewed by STATS saw it as an artificial coloring process.. “The color is still derived from the meat pigment, not an external coloring agent, and the color is the same as that from oxygen. Therefore, this is not deceiving consumers,” says Sebranek.

“MAP with a small amount of carbon monoxide does not add a new color to meat,” says Alden Booren, Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at Michigan State University, (via e-mail). “It reacts with the naturally occurring pigment in meat (myoglobin) to produce a form of the pigment that is more stable and is not readily distinguishable from the normal (oxygenated) form of the pigment. Thus it is not a ‘coloring’ but rather the natural pigment in a slightly different form.”

MAP with CO does not disguise spoilage – it slows it down
Rep’s Dingell and Stupak’s contention that MAP CO “disguises spoilage” is also dismissed by food safety experts and scientists. The MAP CO system eliminates oxygen, and without oxygen the key bacterium that generates spoilage is suppressed. “Pseudomonas, which in not pathogenic, is capable of spoiling fresh beef stored in air at refrigeration temperatures within a few days,” says P. Michael Davidson, Professor of Food Microbiology at the University of Tennessee’s Institute for Agriculture (via email). “If we package the product with low or no oxygen MAP, this microorganism is incapable of growth.”

“One of the benefits of the CO system is elimination of oxygen. That alone provides for a longer product shelf life because both chemical oxidation (and resulting off-flavors) and aerobic spoilage bacteria (the fastest growing group of bacteria on fresh meat) are suppressed,” says Sebranek. “What so many players in this game have missed is that CO permits the use of additional antimicrobial treatments that provide for greater control of bacterial growth. For example, it is well-recognized that carbon dioxide will slow the growth of many bacteria. However, more than about 30% or so carbon dioxide in a modified atmosphere package with oxygen will cause meat browning. With carbon monoxide, the amount of carbon dioxide that can be used in the package is much greater because there is no discoloration, thus bacterial control is improved.”

The result, as Doyle explains via email, is that “The shelf life of refrigerated (<40 F) MAP-CO ground beef is two to three weeks compared to about three to five days for typical overwrapped ground beef.”

But the most recent finding about MAP is that the CO component also represses the growth of harmful bacteria when ground beef is stored above recommended refrigeration temperatures. “After 4 days at 50 F, E. coli O157 cell numbers in overwrapped ground beef increase by 100-fold or more compared to MAP-CO product,” says Doyle. “Hence, refrigerated or mildly temperature abused MAP-CO ground beef has better quality and microbial safety characteristics than overwrapped beef stored under similar conditions.”

When MAP CO meat spoils
Much of the controversy over MAP CO is due to the assumption that the color of meat indicates whether it’s safe or not – and that if you make the red color more resilient, you can disguise spoilage and pass old meat onto the consumer. But MAP CO meat will spoil after three weeks, and, as Brewer notes, the key indicator of spoilage is not color but odor. “If the meat was spoiled, you would know it,” she says.

“The COMb (the red pigment form of CO compared to that formed in air, Oxymyoglobin = OMb) does NOT mask spoilage, says Melvin Hunt, Professor of Animal Sciences and Industry at Kansas State Uninversity’s Food Science Institute (via email). “Most of the opponents of the use of CO in MAP do not understand the dynamics of meat color (a delicate balance between being purple-red, bright red, and tan/brown).”

“The use of MAP containing carbon monoxide shifts the consumer's ability to detect spoilage from looking at the meat, and deciding it is unacceptable based on color, to examining the sell-by dates or looking for gas production or a bulged package,” says Davidson. “While it does put more responsibility on the consumer to read the package, using color to determine acceptability is not foolproof either. Just because the meat doesn't look particularly bad is not a sign that it is not spoiled or close to spoilage and the reverse is also true. Actually, most consumers probably use their noses to make a final determination as to whether a product is acceptable to cook and that wont change with MAP.

Davidson notes that MAP puts an onus on processors and retailers to set realistic sell-by dates.

“The bottom line here, says Hunt, is that consumers must do their part and smell the product before cooking and consumption – not a new or alarming fact.”

Is a rival industry behind the misinformation campaign?
Professor Booren wrote to Rep Dingell a year ago to explain why describing MAP with CO as a colorant was misleading, and why, after reviewing all the peer-reviewed literature on the technology, he concluded that “the safety of the food supply has not been compromised.” None of the scientists interviewed saw any reason for supermarkets to drop MAP CO meat or for consumers to be alarmed.

“My opinion,” says Doyle, “is that MAP-CO treatment of ground beef provides a better quality product for an extended period of time than overwrapped ground beef. This reduces wastage and gives consumers more flexibility in time to use refrigerated ground beef.”

But such expert testimony appears to have had no impact on the political campaign against MAP. The Safeway story is just the tip of the ice berg,” e-mails Hunt. “The good congressmen from Michigan who seem to be championing the charge against CO are just doing their job for a Michigan company (Kalsec).  Kalsec was going to loose tons of business if the meat industry lead by Walmart switched from the High-oxygen MAP system to the Carbon monoxide MAP system. So they poisoned the pot with a lot of WRONG science, which isn’t very hard to do since CO is not the most user-friendly compound.”

Kalsec has also “petitioned the FDA to reconsider the approval of CO packaging and that has been generating numerous media releases that are strongly worded criticisms of the concept,” says Sebranek. “Kalsec is a supplier of antioxidants used in high oxygen packaging systems, products that are not needed in the CO package.  Their motivation, in my opinion, is economic.”

Lobbying reports show that Kalsec paid $840,000 to the Washington DC law firm Covington and Burling to lobby Congress and other federal agencies on food safety issues, over the past year, as well as making two sub-$10,000 payments to  Prism Public Affairs to lobby specific Congressmen, including Reps Dingell and  Stupak on MAP CO issues.

And media coverage of the issue has tended to play up fears about the process. “Unsafe food and related public health consequences makes a much better story than does safe food,” says Brewer. Don Berdahl, Kalsec’s Vice President was extensively cited in a Washington Post story on the controversy, which also featured advocacy groups voicing their concerns about safety. No independent food safety experts were quoted in the story; instead, the Post turned to FDA and industry sources.

A similar story by USA Today featured Berdahl and Kalsec prominently, but also failed to quote any independent food safety experts.

The result is a sense of alarm among academics that an enormously useful technology – one that might save an enormous amount of meat from being wasted – could be doomed.

On September 17, the American Meat Science Association wrote to the House Agriculture Committee to warn about the misinformation that has characterized recent discussion of MAP CO and to announce the commission of a white paper by top scientists in meat color chemistry and safety.

“Like any other approved technology,” the letter concludes, “the use of CO in modified atmosphere packaging applications deserves a chance to succeed or fail on its scientific merits, and not on misinformation.”


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