Washington A bitter regulatory battle over the safety of a packaging system that can keep meat looking fresh long past its shelf life is escalating, amid complaints that the industry misinterpreted recent research reports to bolster its case.
At issue is the growing practice of spiking sealed packages of meat with small doses of carbon monoxide. The gas is harmless at the concentrations being used, but it can keep meat looking bright red and fresh even as it spoils.
In a series of largely unpublicized decisions, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration have allowed use of the gas in various packaging systems. Proponents, including the three major meat producers, say the process is safe and will help reduce the $1 billion the industry loses every year from having to discount or discard meat that has begun to turn brown but is still safe to eat.
Opponents charge that the process, banned by the European Union, can deceive consumers into thinking meat is fresher than it is. In addition, the opponents say, date labels that the USDA requires for the treated meat - which instruct consumers to "use or freeze" treated ground beef within 21 days after the package was sealed - give the public false assurance the meat will remain unspoiled that long.