before modified atmosphere packaging
As anyone who purchased meat before MAP was introduced can
remember, red meat would turn from a bright red colour to a deep purple and
eventually brown. In the case of chicken, this would go from pale beige to
darker beige and finally reaching a colour close to grey. The change in
colouration simply meant that the meat had had a longer exposure to air, which,
since it contains oxygen, had oxidised the heme proteins in the muscles, thus
changing its colour. However, many consumers were turned off by this colour
change, associating it with the meat "going bad", and would not buy the product,
in spite of the fact that it was microbiologically safe to eat it.
How modified atmosphere
The idea behind the MAP concept is to allow meat to retain the
colours most people identify with freshness for a longer period of time. How is
this accomplished? Basically by reducing the amount of oxygen in the package, so
that the meat oxidises more slowly and replacing with other gases that had no
effect on meat colour. So far so good, right? However, because there was always
some oxidation taking place, the meat would eventually change colour, although
at a later point in time.
Can carbon monoxide make rotting
meat look health?
But what if we could make meat retain its fresh colour for as
long as it remained in the package? This is where CO comes in. This gas, even in
very small amounts, has the peculiar ability of allowing meat in MAP to retain
its original colour, even if it has begun to rot. And therein lies the problem:
what if consumers, thinking that the meat in a package is fresh because it still
has it original colour, decides it is therefore okay to eat and then becomes ill
from food poisoning?
This theoretical scenario is what
prompted the EU to ban the use of CO in MAP
for meat and for consumer
groups in the US the raise the alarm after its use, based on scientific research
, was approved by the US government.
The controversy continues to this day, with different organisations and bodies
taking different sides. For example, several supermarket chains and meat
processors have announced that out of concern for the body public, they will
refrain from selling meat products with CO in MAPs.
CO in modified atmosphere packaging
approved in Norway
However, is this theoretical scenario actually probable? As any
statistician will tell you, anything is possible, but it is worth looking at
what has happened in countries that have approved the use of CO in MAPs, such as
Norway. Last year, in my former role as editor of Meat International, I was
invited to visit the Norwegian Meat Research Centre, where, among other
subjects, we discussed CO in MAPs.
How protected do consumers need to be
According to the researchers at the Centre, certain important
aspects from that theoretical scenario are missing. First, MAPs have a date of
expiration printed on the package. That date has a purpose, pointedly, to tell
consumers when they should eat the meat. And second, that when meat begins to
rot, even if it's packaged in a modified atmosphere, it will produce a literally
rotten smell. These two points have prevented Norwegian consumers from falling
ill from eating bad meat because they have learned that the expiration date is
there for a purpose.
In light if this, it seems we need to ask ourselves the
question, just how stupid do we think consumers are? It seems quite obvious that
consumers can read expiration dates and can tell the difference between meat
that is still safe to eat and rotten meat just by following their noses. So, are
consumer groups that stand against the use of CO in MAPs really protecting
consumers (who they say they represent) or just crying fowl because they are
afraid of change? It seems science and experience are against themâ€¦