As a desperate strategy to fight insomnia, Th’ Gaussling often finds himself watching C-Span at 1 AM.  Congressional testimony or a televised speech at the International Museum Docent Convention by the Acting Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of the Stratosphere is often enough to initiate somnolence.

But early this morning was different. A panel of FDA administrators were before a House Committee on Commerce Chaired by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan. At issue was H.R. 4167, the National Uniformity for Food Act. Apparently, the proposed law will remove requirements for certain kinds of food labeling, in particular the presence of certain additives may not be part of manditory labeling.

What has come to light is the industrial practice of exposing meats and fish to an atmosphere of dilute carbon monoxide (CO, ca 0.4 %) in order to maintain a red color in the flesh.  Meat naturally turns brown on exposure to air over a short period. Industry has been wrestling with this for a long time, adopting and subsequently abandoning various schemes for maintaining the reassuring red color of meats and certain fish. Carbon monoxide coordinates with iron in haemoglobin to afford a complex that renders the tissues red in color. The FDA defines CO as a fixative in this application, rather than a preservative.

As a result of the use of this scheme, it is possible to keep meats and fish with a saleable red appearance for much longer. This reduces store losses due to the non-marketability of brown meat.

The House Commerce Committee was split down the isle in terms of its concern for this matter. Democratic committee members voiced considerable concern over the subterfuge of artificially reddening meat, allowing unwary consumers to falsely conclude that the meat could be fresher than it really is. Republican members seemed disinterested in the matter and several voiced concern that the FDA should spend it’s time with Salmonella rather than CO. The honorable Republican member from Kentucky tried to suggest that as a “simple country doctor”, he was having trouble understanding the issues and pronouncing the words (Rep. Elmer T. Bonehead, R-KY).

Whereas many of the members soft pedaled their questions, Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, offered no quarter to the FDA group. In particular he focused his attention of Director of Food Additive Safety, Laura Tarantino.  In earlier testimony, Tarantino was a picture of confidence. Her knowledge of the statutes and the Byzantine procedural details as well as her confidence and instant recall was impressive. However, when Dingell’s time for questions came along, he went after her with rapid fire questions, not allowing time for her to qualify her answers or fend off subtext.  “Just answer the question, yes or no”. It was interesting to see.  Dingell was obviously disgusted with the FDA.  The regulations and protocols that govern FDA movement are very complex and apparently even the administrators have faint grasp on much of it.

Director Tarantino stated that no specific rule-making concerning CO fixatives had been completed because it was still under study.  The working assumption was that CO was considered GRAS- Generally Recognized as Safe. These assumptions are often advanced by industry and accepted with scant examination by FDA.

When asked about the general safety of CO in the product, one FDA manager stated that the added CO posed no hazard. I have no reason to doubt this. But the real issue is consumer deception. I think even libertarians would have to agree that without disclosure of food additives, the market cannot rationally award its demand to preferred providers. You can bank on the notion that consumers are particular about meat and freshness. HR 4167 is a step backwards for consumers and we can only hope that good sense prevails in the House.