October 30, 2007 / 9:54 PM / 10 years ago

Meatpackers tell shoppers "use by" date is key

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Grocery shoppers should check the “use by” date on meat packages because color is not a guarantee the meat is fresh, two large U.S. meat processors said on Tuesday at a hearing on a packaging technique that keeps meat pink.

Some consumer groups have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw its approval in 2002 of sealed packaging that uses a higher portion of carbon monoxide -- 0.4 percent -- than exists in air. A bill in the U.S. House would require additional labeling of packages using the technique.

Cargill Meat Solutions told the House Agriculture Committee it would put new wording, advising consumers to check the sell-by date, on case-ready packages of meat because of questions about “modified atmosphere packaging.”

Carbon monoxide packaging slows the growth of harmful bacteria besides producing bright-red meat, said Joseph Sebranek, an animal science professor at Iowa State University. He said shoppers could check the “use by” date on packages and beware of odors indicating spoilage.

The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service requires use-by/sell-by date on meats sold in packages containing carbon monoxide. “This is to ensure that the shelf life of the product ends before spoilage occurs,” said FSIS chief Alfred Almanza.

Cargill Meat executive Scott Eilert said the processor, part of agribusiness giant Cargill Inc, based in Minneapolis, decided to add to its packages the words, “Color is not an indicator of freshness. Please refer to use or freeze by dates.”

“We believe this effectively addresses the concerns of the (House Energy and Commerce) Committee in protecting public health while not undermining the adoption of the safety and convenience offered through case-ready packaging,” said Eilert in written testimony.

    An official from Hormel Foods Corp (HRL.N), of Austin, Minnesota, also said meat color was not an accurate indicator of freshness and that consumers routinely rely on sell-by dates. The largest U.S. meat processor, Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N), described the steps meatpackers take to prevent bacterial contamination of meat.

    A bill filed in the U.S. House would require meat packages to list carbon monoxide as a color additive and to display a “safety notice” against using color or the use-by date alone to judge meat safety.

    Four consumer groups said in a statement the new technique can mask spoilage and is deceptive.

    Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson, Minnesota Democrat, said the maker of a rival packaging system declined an invitation to testify.

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