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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The American Meat Institute Foundation held a teleconference briefing yesterday to try to blunt further controversy surrounding modified atmosphere packaging technology that uses carbon monoxide to help maintain meat's natural red color.
Dr. Mel Hunt, professor, Kansas State University, a featured discussion leader during the teleconference, tried the educational approach, provided journalists listening in an overview of the science of meat color and meat pigment. Then Hunt offered his assessment of the safety of the packaging technology.
James H. Hodges, president of the AMI Foundation, began the briefing by pointing out that the controversy was prompted by Kalsec, Inc. -- a maker of a technology that competes with carbon monoxide meat packaging systems -- which had filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration arguing that the agency should not have approved the systems because it is deceptive and may hide signs of spoilage.
Kalsec, which makes a natural seasoning that extends the color of packaged ground beef, asked the FDA to ban carbon monoxide.
At yesterday's briefing, Hodges called Kalsec's petition a calculated move to distort the facts and discredit a competing technology that stands to make Kalsec's product obsolete. Hodges said the carbon-monoxide based system, which first gained government approval in 2002, is a safe way to keep meat looking appealing to consumers, and thus enables retailers to reduce shrink and keep costs low.
Controlled atmosphere packaging systems similar to the one at issue have been commonplace in food and meat packaging for decades, said Hodges. Similar controlled atmosphere packaging systems are currently used for bagged salads, potato chips, nuts, bakery products, coffee, pasta, shredded cheese, pre-cut vegetables and others.
For that reason, he said, AMI said it does not support calls for adding information about the system on packages of meat.
"Meat packaged using these systems includes a prominent use-by or freeze by date and federally mandated safe handling labels that provide consumers with all the information they need to ensure the product is safe all the way to the table," said Mark Dopp, AMI's s.v.p. of regulatory affairs and general counsel.
Temperature abuse during distribution, while rare, would be the cause of most spoiled meats at retail, said Dr. Hunt. Consumers can readily identify temperature abuse by other sensory evidence besides color, including noticeably bulging packages, a distinct foul odor, and a slimy texture on the meat.
What's more, AMI estimates that less than 5 percent of case-ready meat now uses carbon monoxide.
However, the industry faces another potential public relations challenge related to the packaging practice besides Kalsec's petition. Kroger, one of the nation's largest supermarket chains, recently asked its suppliers to stop using carbon monoxide meat packaging systems. Lynn Marmer, group v.p. of corporate affairs for the chain, was quoted saying, "Rather than engage in a practice that people could view as being deceptive, we'd rather not."
The recent flurry of media controversy has also spurred organizers of the upcoming 2006 Meat Conference to add a workshop session exploring modified atmosphere packaging. The event, co-hosted by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute, will take place March 12-14 in Dallas.