WASHINGTON - Retailers are quickly re-assessing their use of case-ready meat treated with carbon monoxide after widespread media coverage last week created a groundswell of opposition to the practice.
The reports raised the question of whether the packaging process creates a safety concern by masking the true freshness of the product.
"I know guys around the country who are using a lot of [modified-air packaging] stuff, and they're a little shaken up right now," said one Midwestern meat department executive who asked not to be identified.
Among the first to announce they were no longer selling treated meat was Kroger Co., Cincinnati, which sold CO-infused packages of beef patties and chili meat. The nation's second-largest food retailer, behind Wal-Mart Stores, said it made its decision after its own review found the efficacy of the carbon-monoxide application to be inconclusive, according to a company spokeswoman. She added the findings were made independent of the current debate.
The whole issue arose after Kalsec, a Michigan-based producer of a natural food extract that also delays the browning of meat, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to rescind its approval of CO MAP, arguing the gas process masks the true freshness and safety of meat. The request attracted the attention of several consumer groups and even members of Congress. In response, Laura Tarantino, director, Office of Food Additive Safety in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said there has never been any evidence that consumers might be misled into buying spoiled meat due to the use of MAP technology.
"It's something we would be very concerned about and would have been cause for us to object," she said.
It may take weeks or months for federal regulators to act on Kalsec's petition but, like Kroger, supermarkets are stepping forward now to state their positions on MAP. Mary Moore, spokeswoman for D'Agostino Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y., confirmed that the chain carries certain cuts of the Laura's Lean Beef and Creekstone Farms brands of natural beef in MAP packages - and that they will remain on shelves.
"We're not going to take the meats off our shelves because customers have other meat alternatives [that aren't processed in this way] on the shelves," she said.
Moore added that the lack of on-pack labels indicating a particular meat product is infused with CO, or otherwise using MAP technology, is not designed to mislead consumers, who have better ways of checking for freshness.
"It's our experience that customers check the sell-by dates," she said.
Other retailers made it a point to say their stores do not sell MAP beef. Maria Brous, a spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., said the chain has declined to carry such products because of customer expectations.
"We've seen this method of packaging in the past when suppliers have presented their products to us, but we want to offer our customers top-quality products and they rely on Publix to do this," she said. "Any meats that are packaged in this way can be taken as deceptive to customers because they, as consumers, aren't able to tell the quality [of meats], and we, as the retailer, wouldn't be able to tell the quality of that meat either. We want to make sure that customers know the meat they're buying is fresh."
The backlash has the potential to disrupt a powerful trend where MAP plays a leading role: case-ready meats. A 2004 study by the Cryovac division of the Sealed Air Corp. found that case-ready products have grown to 60% of the entire meat case, up from 49% in 2002. Of that total, 66% of ground beef was case-ready, up 10% from 2002; while 23% of beef products were case-ready, up from 15% during the same period.
Perhaps more important are the implications for other products using controlled atmospheres, including multibillion-dollar categories like bagged salads and seafood. MAP is also found in snack foods like potato chips and even beverages. Some use the CO mixture, while others use combinations of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide.
Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Meat Institute in Arlington, Va., said the use of CO still only accounts for less than 5% of MAP meats in the marketplace. She expressed surprise at the heated tenor of the debate.
"The jury is still out, but hopefully consumers are seeing this issue for what it really is," Riley said, referring to Kalsec's petition. "We're just going to try to keep getting the message out that this is a win-win for everyone - both consumers and retailers."
John Nalivka, president of Sterling Marketing, a research and advisory firm in Vale, Ore., told SN the argument being pressed by Kalsec and the consumer groups - that consumers cannot visibly detect a food safety issue with CO-infused MAP meats - is somewhat irrelevant.
"Customers should be looking at the out-of-date label," he said. "MAP packaging isn't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes."
Nevertheless, the ferocity of the public outcry surprised retailers, who've long been familiar with MAP technology. Until recently, however, its use was limited to bulk packages of primal cuts that, when opened, allowed oxygen to enter and create a bloom of bright red on the meat.
It wasn't until 2004 that the FDA began allowing meatpackers to add a mixture of 0.4% carbon monoxide to the 70/30 blend of nitrogen and carbon dioxide directly into individual, retail packages of meat. Research showed the addition of CO helped meat maintain its bright red color for a longer period of time, improving the cut's consumer appeal and shelf life. Meat managers considered the process advantageous, since many were losing cutters to job attrition against unrelenting pressure to improve department margins.