Meat-packing method questioned

;WASHINGTON (AP) – Minnesota companies Cargill Inc. and Hormel Foods Corp. told the House Agriculture Committee Tuesday that their practice of packaging meat in carbon monoxide was safe, while consumer groups critical of the practice steamed about getting excluded from the hearing.

The meat industry uses the practice to help meat retain its red color, but critics say it misleads consumers about the freshness of the product.

“The product has been in the market for four years, and it has been extremely well received by our retailers and our consumers,” said Phil Minerich, a vice president at Hormel.

Last week, Safe Tables Our Priority and other groups opposed to the use of carbon monoxide asked the committee chairman, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, for a chance to testify at the hearing, but were turned down.

“This isn’t the appropriate venue for that,” Peterson said in a brief interview before the hearing. He said the purpose was to educate committee members about meat industry technologies.

“There would then potentially be another hearing, where we would bring in the consumer groups, farm groups, folks that have an ax to grind one way or another,” Peterson said.

The other groups seeking to testify against the practice were Consumer Federation of America, Food & Water Watch and Government Accountability Project.

The committee did invite a company that has helped lead the charge against the use of carbon monoxide in meat packaging, Kalsec Inc. of Kalamazoo, Mich., which makes extracts that slow the browning of meat. Two years ago, the company filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration seeking a ban on the use of carbon monoxide in meat packaging.

Peterson told the committee that Kalsec declined the invitation.

“It’s unfortunate that for whatever reason they didn’t want to be here,” he said.

“Our problem is with the FDA,” responded Kalsec’s vice president, Donald Berdahl. “We didn’t think this (hearing) was a good forum for raising that concern.” The company has acknowledged it has a business interest in protesting the practice.

Since 2002, the FDA has given the go-ahead to use carbon monoxide under a process known as “generally recognized as safe.”

FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said in an e-mail that the agency has not made a final decision on the merits of Kalsec’s petition.

Officials from both Hormel and Cargill stressed that color is not a good gauge for meat’s freshness, and that consumers are better off relying on the use-by date. The two companies use the technology in a joint venture called Precept Foods.

Scott Eilert, a vice president for Cargill Meat Solutions, noted that critics have accused the companies of trying to deceive consumers.

“That is not our intent or our purpose,” he said, charging that opponents have waged a “campaign of misinformation.”