THE BLOG
10/30/2007 04:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Democrats Abuse Science: A "Revolutionary" Breakthrough in Food Safety is Derailed


The contention that the Bush administration has made a brute mockery of science has become such a truism that Hillary Clinton has gone so far as to make "the war on science" a campaign issue, recently decrying the politicization of science as "dangerous for our democracy." After years of pomo "science as social construct" blather on the left, the appeal to old-fashioned empiricism and instrumental reason is deeply refreshing, not least for what it implies: a rejection of anti-elitism, which sees any form of expertise as hostile to the native commonsense of the average American, and an affirmation of trust in the capacity of the voting public to reason from the best of all possible data. Indeed, fuse Mrs. Clinton's appeal with that of Al Gore's proselytizing for Enlightenment values and you have the makings of an interesting ideological shift in liberal rhetoric.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the party of the new Enlightenment is walking the walk -- even when the science is unequivocal, unanimously held by the leading experts in the field, and offers significant benefits to public health and the environment.

Over the past year, two Michigan Reps, John Dingell and Bart Stupak, have worked to derail what Professor Michael Doyle, Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, has called a "revolutionary technology," known as modified atmospheric packaging with carbon monoxide (MAP CO).

MAP CO not only provides greater protection to consumers from food borne pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 (which kills an estimated 61 people a year in the U.S. and leaves thousands sick), but it keeps meat fresh for significantly longer period of time. This has the potential to save an enormous amount of meat from being discarded because it looks bad, even when it's perfectly safe to eat.

The underlying problem is that we are driven by habit and not logic when it comes to buying meat: most of us identify "fresh" meat by a bright red color, which results from exposure to oxygen. In an oxygen-free environment meat is purple -- but that looks odd to most people, so for retail purposes the meat is allowed to come into contact with air.

Unfortunately, this starts the process of browning, which we associate with a lack of freshness -- even though the meat hasn't necessarily spoiled. In other words, for entirely illogical reasons, we have reduced the saleable lifespan of fresh meat to a few days, and as a consequence, the amount of perfectly good meat that ends up being dumped may reach a billion dollars a year, according to one estimate.

About four years ago, scientists made a breakthrough. By extracting the air and adding a tiny amount of carbon monoxide the meat retains a red color and stays fresher for longer. The carbon monoxide binds to the myoglobin in meat exactly the way oxygen does, it's just a lot stickier. One upshot is that meat packers can then add more carbon dioxide to kill bacteria, so the meat stays fresher for longer.

Not so, say Reps Dingell and Stupak. MAP CO is a health hazard and it artificially colors the meat, disguises spoilage, and deceives consumers. And they are so convinced of the hazard that they have used their respective chairmanships of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to persuade supermarkets to stop stocking meat wrapped with MAP CO. In July, Safeway obliged. As the Washington Post reports, Tyson Foods and Giant Foods are following suit.

But in detailed interviews for STATS.org, six leading experts from the nation's top university programs on food safety said Dingell and Stupak were talking rot. MAP CO is not a colorant and it doesn't disguise spoilage, of which the best indicator is odor. The science is absolutely clear on these points.

One of these scientists, Alden Booren, Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at Michigan State University, wrote to Rep Dingell to correct his misapprehension of the basic science a year ago, and to reassure him that after examining all the peer-reviewd literature on the process, "the safety of the food supply has not been compromised."

And now, as Doyle told a Canadian conference on meat safety in September, the latest research shows MAP CO significantly reduces the growth of E. coli on meat that been stored above the recommended temperatures -- so it's not just a matter of reducing waste by actually keeping meat fresher for longer, it's a demonstrably safer method of packing meat. None of the scientists interviewed by STATS saw any reason for supermarkets to drop MAP CO meat or for consumers to be alarmed.

So why the stubborn refusal to be guided by unanimity within the scientific community? It turns out that a Michigan company, Kalsec, has a rival but less effective process for keeping meat fresh -- and stands to lose out if MAP CO is universally adopted. Kalsec has spent at least $850,000 on lobbying Congress on food safety issues, and as the records show, specifically lobbying Dingell and Stupak on MAP CO. The company has also petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to reconsider it's approval of MAP CO.

"The good congressmen from Michigan who seem to be championing the charge against CO are just doing their job for a Michigan company," says Melvin Hunt, Professor of Animal Sciences and Industry at Kansas State University's Food Science Institute. "Kalsec was going to loose tons of business if the meat industry lead by Walmart switched from the High-oxygen MAP system to the Carbon monoxide MAP system. So they poisoned the pot with a lot of WRONG science, which isn't very hard to do since CO is not the most user-friendly compound."

Meat safety scientists are now appealing to the Department of Agriculture to stop this nonsense. Perhaps a better first step would be for Mrs. Clinton to step in and remind her party that you can't fight a war on science, improve public health, or even preserve democracy when you have a fifth column willing to betray science and the American public to local interests.