Kalsec, a producer of herb and spice flavourings and colourings, has asked the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today to rescind its acceptance of the use of carbon monoxide in case-ready meats.

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 colour changes would indicate ageing or bacterial spoilage, the company said in a statement.

Kalsec urged the FDA to withdraw its July 2004 decision and related decisions to allow the presence of carbon monoxide in meat packaging. The FDA accepted Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) applications meaning that the FDA conducted no independent safety investigations on its own, but instead relied on the notifiers' claims, research and documentation in considering the safety of carbon monoxide use in food.

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, Kalsec said. Carbon monoxide- treated meats are currently being sold to consumers without informing them of the use of 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 colour, is the primary factor in consumers' decisions to buy a product, it 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.

Kalsec's petition states that 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 expressly prohibit the use of carbon monoxide in "fresh meat products."

"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.

Moreover, 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 colour additive, and the agency bypassed the required procedure for carbon monoxide to obtain a colour additive designation, a necessary precondition for making it legal to use carbon monoxide in fresh meat packaging.

Regulations of the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service 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 that "the stable cherry-colour can last beyond the microbial shelf life of the meat and thus mask spoilage." Several countries including Japan, Canada and Singapore also ban the use of carbon monoxide in tuna.