Bill has some baffled


POSTED: Saturday, May 30, 2009

Question: I read an Associated Press article, “;Gas-treated meat and fish must be labeled,”; saying the state Legislature had passed a bill requiring meat and fish treated with gas to be labeled. The gas is meant to make the product look fresh. But I read in “;Kokua Line”; in the past that this labeling requirement has been in place since 1999. What's new about this?

Answer: The bill also baffled state Department of Health officials who oversee the inspection of fish, because they say they already have authority to require the labeling of fish treated with carbon monoxide and other gases.

The department's Food and Drug Branch oversees the inspection of fish in the state but it is not responsible for the inspection of meat.

The state Department of Agriculture, which would be required to post labeling requirements on its Web site, hasn't had anything to do with meat inspections since the 1990s. That's in the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), said state agriculture spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi.

State law cannot supersede federal law.

Federal law does not specifically address labeling of meat treated by gas to “;approximate the appearance of freshness,”; as does the bill passed by the Legislature (House Bill 1611, not HB 128 mentioned in the AP story). That bill requires naming the gas used and the reason it's used.

Federal law requires that meats packaged using carbon monoxide that is in direct contact with the product until opened have “;use by”; or “;freeze by”; dates on their labels.

However, if a method to help preserve food replaces some or all of the oxygen inside a package with gases other than carbon monoxide (e.g., nitrogen or carbon dioxide), then dating is “;encouraged voluntarily”; but is not required.

According to the FSIS, carbon monoxide stabilizes the color pigment of meat when it is red and “;most appealing to consumers.”; It does not change the color and dissipates as soon as the package is opened.

“;This is unlike other ingredients used to stabilize the red color of meat, such as citric acid, sodium ascorbate and rosemary extract, all of which actually do become a part of the product and may have a lasting effect on product color even after packaging is removed,”; according to the FSIS.

In 2002 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deemed carbon monoxide used in “;modified atmosphere packaging”; as “;Generally Recognized as Safe.”;

As far as the state Agriculture Department is concerned, its only respon- sibility if House Bill 1611 becomes law is just to post the labeling requirements for both fish and meat by Aug. 1, Saneishi said.

(The bill is pending before Gov. Linda Lingle. She has until July 15 to sign bills passed by the 2009 Legislature into law, veto them or let them become law without her signature.)

In 2006—see archives.starbulletin.com/2006/06/01/news/kokualine.html—we explained that fish cannot be labeled “;fresh”; or “;fresh frozen”; if it was processed either with carbon monoxide or “;tasteless smoke.”;

Gas-treated fish also has to be labeled with common names, i.e., carbon monoxide instead of CO.

The labeling requirements date to 1999, when the federal FDA became concerned with the seafood industry's growing use of gases to preserve imported tuna and other seafood.

That federal agency regulates the importation of seafood, while the state Food and Drug Branch enforces the same regulations at wholesale and retail levels.

The Food and Drug Branch testified against HB 1611, “;as we already have authority to enforce labeling of fish products,”; said branch Chief Lynn Nakasone.

For example, fish sold in packages with no other ingredients, such as ahi filets or tombo cubes, and treated with carbon monoxide for color retention must be properly labeled like other packaged processed foods, she said.

Un-packaged fish treated with carbon monoxide, such as poke sold in trays or fish filets sold in display cases, must be accompanied by a counter card or sign disclosing treatment.

The only thing that's new in the bill, as far as fish labeling is concerned, are the $1,000 and $2,000 fines specific to fish labeling, Nakasone said.

Every other violation related to food and drug in her jurisdiction continues to be a maximum $10,000 per day per “;event,”; she said.