A Michigan company has filed a petition asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stop the use of carbon monoxide in supermarket meat.

The use of carbon monoxide deceives consumers and creates an unnecessary risk of food poisoning by enabling meat and ground beef to remain fresh-looking beyond the point at which typical color changes would indicate ageing or bacterial spoilage, according to Kalsec, Inc. of Kalamazoo, Michigan, a privately-held supplier of natural spice, herb, hop, and vegetable extracts for use in food, beverage, and pharmaceutical applications

Kalsec's petition urged the FDA to withdraw its July 2004 decision and related decisions to allow the presence of carbon monoxide in meat packaging.

"The FDA should not have accepted carbon monoxide in meat without doing its own independent evaluation of the safety implications," said Elizabeth Campbell, former head of FDA's Office of Food Labeling and now a consultant with AAC Consulting Group.

The FDA accepted the practice under its "Generally Recognized As Safe" procedure, meaning that the FDA conducted no independent safety investigations on its own, but instead relied on industry claims, research and documentation.

Carbon monoxide makes meat appear fresher than it actually is by reacting with the meat pigment myoglobin to create carboxymyoglobin, a bright red pigment that masks the natural aging and spoilage of meats.

Carbon monoxide-treated meats are currently being sold to consumers without any notice that the meat has been treated with carbon monoxide.

"Carbon monoxide simulates the appearance of freshness, so consumers may actually believe meat is fresh and safe when it may be neither," said Dr. Don Berdahl, Vice President and Technical Director of Kalsec. "We hope the FDA acts quickly to end this deceptive, potentially dangerous practice."

The appearance of meat, and specifically its color, is the primary factor in consumers' decisions to buy a product, Berdahl said. The use of carbon monoxide in meat makes it impossible for consumers to know with certainty about the meat's freshness merely by looking at it.

Treating meat with carbon monoxide could hide the growth of pathogens, such as Clostridium Botulinum, Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7.

If meat is bought spoiled, refrigerated improperly or used after these pathogens begin to grow, even proper cooking might not be sufficient to render the food safe to eat, because certain bacteria produce toxins that survive the cooking process, he said.

The petition claims the FDA illegally accepted the use of carbon monoxide. It is precisely because of the potential for carbon monoxide to mask the appearance of aging or spoilage and promote consumer deception that FDA regulations under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) expressly prohibit the use of carbon monoxide in "fresh meat products."

Moreover, the petition claims the FDA did not have legal authority to permit the use of carbon monoxide in fresh meat packaging because it is an unapproved and prohibited color additive, and the agency bypassed the required procedure for carbon monoxide to obtain a color additive designation, a necessary precondition for making it legal to use carbon monoxide in fresh meat packaging, according to the petitioners.

Regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) prohibit the introduction of ingredients in fresh meat that function to conceal damage or inferiority, or give the appearance the product is of better or greater value.

"The use of carbon monoxide in meat should not have been allowed without independent study of the serious consumer safety and deception implications," said Dr. Berdahl.

"At the very least, the public has a right to know about the use of carbon monoxide in their food. If the FDA won't prohibit it, the government should require a label that informs consumers about the presence of carbon monoxide and the health dangers it presents."

The use of carbon monoxide has been banned in other countries. In 2003, the European Union prohibited the use of carbon monoxide in meat and tuna.

The European Commission's Scientific Committee on Food said, "the stable cherry-color can last beyond the microbial shelf life of the meat and thus mask spoilage."(1) Several countries including Japan, Canada and Singapore also ban the use of carbon monoxide in tuna.