To the Committee: This letter is written in support of the proposed ordinance before this committee to ban the sale of carbon monoxide treated case ready meat within the City of Chicago. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.) support this ordinance and urge that it be passed. The Consumer Federation of American is a non-profit association of 300 consumer groups representing more than 50 million Americans. And Safe Tables Our Priority is a national, non-profit volunteer health organization dedicated to preventing suffering, illness and death due to food-borne illness.
Earlier this year, both of our organizations wrote to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in support of a Citizen’s petition filed by Kalsec, Inc. on November 15, 2005. Kalsec’s petition asked these agencies to prohibit the use of carbon monoxide in packaging of fresh meat, or require labeling of treated product. The use of carbon monoxide to package case ready meat is a highly deceptive practice that has the potential to create the unnecessary risk of food poisoning among unsuspecting consumers. While we acknowledge that the level of carbon monoxide used in these products is safe for human consumption, it can present a serious health problem.
Carbon monoxide fixates the color of meat by creating a persistent and bright red color that can last well beyond “use and freeze-by” dates, and past the point at which the meat has spoiled. It is well known that consumers rely on color to determine the freshness of meat. In fact, an estimated $1 billion is lost each year due to consumer unwillingness to purchase discolored meat products. Ultimately, the reason carbon monoxide is used in the packaging of case ready meat is because consumers do rely on color in making purchasing decisions about meat products. Further, there are no labeling requirements for carbon monoxide at this time.
As a result, consumers have no indication that the color of this meat is artificially maintained and are denied the opportunity to make informed purchasing decisions. This practice therefore deceives the consumer into believing that meat is fresh when it may not be. Proponents of this practice disingenuously claim that carbon monoxide use is not deceptive and that it does not increase the likelihood of food poisoning. They introduce the novel idea that consumers should rely primarily on “use or freeze-by” and other indicators of spoilage, such as smell, slime formation and a bulging package, and that consumers should ignore the color of meat in making purchasing decisions.
These claims are designed to confuse the simple fact that the use of carbon monoxide in packaging masks the indicator of spoilage that is most evident to and used by the consumer — the color of the meat. Additionally, there is reputable data indicating that carbon monoxide inhibits the formation of slime in meat. Moreover, consumers cannot smell these sealed packages before purchasing the meat and bulging is not always readily apparent. Also, there are vulnerable populations for whom color may be the only usable indicator of freshness — those who cannot read English and the elderly, who may not be able to read the small print of the use by date and whose sense of smell has waned.
The USDA has confirmed that adding carbon monoxide to the packaging of case-ready meats does not provide any added benefits that untreated case-ready meats do not already have. The reason companies are packaging meat with carbon monoxide is to fixate its color. The European Union has banned this practice after conducting independent scientific research and acknowledging that consumers rely heavily on color in making purchasing decisions for meat products. The FDA, however, has not done its own investigation. Instead, they have merely accepted industry data in allowing the use of carbon monoxide, without independent scientific review. Nor has the FDA considered, as the European Union did, consumer behaviors and how difficult it is to change those behaviors. Rather, the agency has put the onus on consumers.
The FDA has not responded to the petition filed by Kalsec last November to ban the use of carbon monoxide in fresh meat packaging. Nevertheless, some of the nation’s top supermarket chains–Publix, Kroger, and others–have already voluntarily stopped carrying carbon monoxide treated meat because of the potential for consumer deception and safety risks. Unfortunately, meat packaged with carbon monoxide is still on store shelves today. We urge this committee to take action now and support this ordinance to protect the citizens of Chicago.
Chris Waldrop Deputy Director, Food Policy Institute Consumer Federation of America
Barbara Kowalcyk President, Safe Tables Our Priority