SINCE the Washington Post broke the story last month that North American meat producers are flushing carbon monoxidethrough modified atmosphere packaged (MAP) meat, a process that could also be in use in Australia, consumer groups have understandably been in uproar.
Supermarkets and meat producers are under increasing pressure to drop a process that virtually everyone agrees is fundamentally safe.
And they risk MAP products, used since the late 1990s, being ‘thrown out with the bathwater’.
FOOD Magazine navigates the vested interests, ambiguities and trade secrets.
MAP means the food product is packed in a controlled mixture of gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen or oxygen to maintain quality and taste.
It is widely used in Australian supermarkets for fresh and cooked meats, fish, cheese, vegetables, fruit, baked goods and so on.
In the 1980s, modified atmosphere packaging of broccoli allowed its successful export.
MAP has also been used for shipping flowers from Western Australia to extend shelf life and retain bloom quality.
Of course, it is a touchier subject with red meat.
Eager European firms took the research to the European Union; but although the committee had no scientific objections to the technology, they voted it down 14 votes to 13.
It was also banned in New Zealand; however, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the practice as safe for use with packaged meats in 2004.
The controversy began when Michigan food and spice company Kalsec called for the US regulator to overturn their decision on the grounds that use of the gas could deceive consumers into buying or eating bad meat.
Carbon monoxide can make meat appear fresher than it actually is by reacting with the meat pigment myoglobin to create carboxymyoglobin, a bright red pigment that masks any of the natural ageing and spoilage of meats, according to the petition Kalsec filed with the FDA.
It is unclear to what extent carbon monoxide is used to pack meats in Australia.
“We’ve heard anecdotally that it is practiced in supermarkets,” said Food Standards Australia New Zealand communications manager Lydia Buchtmann.
“Carbon monoxide is permitted as a food additive, and it has a long history, for example it’s the active component if you smoke a product, so it’s not quite as yukky as it sounds,” she said.
“It has been raised as an issue in the past with flushing sushi-quality fish and the local fish markets have cracked down on that.
“It’s not illegal, we don’t think it’s unsafe, but we would have concerns if it is being used to deliberately deceive consumers.
“There could be a false or misleading issue in that it looks redder and fresher to the consumer, and that’s an issue for the ACCC looking at food descriptors such as ‘fresh’.
“It’s come out in the recent discussion about MAP with the treatment of fruit and vegetables and what consumers consider to be fresh.”
Australian Consumers Association foods spokesperson Clair Hughes said it hasn’t been highlighted as an issue with consumers yet.
It’s difficult to judge what the response will be here, where MAP is very common, compared to the US, where most meat is vacuum packed.
There is a strong vested interest in vacuum-packed meat in the US.
University of Queensland emeritus professor (retired) Harry Lovell said that some commercial sectors will argue that vacuum packaging is better and some will say consumers like red meat therefore carbon monoxide packaging will promote our sales.
“Those two things really have nothing to do with the science, nothing to do with the technologies,” said Lovell.
“What you have is a stress on people’s preferences.
“If you look at vacuum packaging, one of the problems it has, and hasn’t been able to resolve, is the actual vacuum process squeezes the meat and you finish up with a quite unattractive looking pack.”
“Nothing wrong with the meat,” he emphasises, “but if it doesn’t look right, you’re really at a disadvantage.”
“Consumer preferences are for red meat, that’s the reality of it,” said Lovell.
Consumer perception is something Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) took seriously enough to convene five consumer focus groups on customer acceptance of carbon monoxide in MAP.
Although many respondents didn’t appear concerned, there was a noticeable negative reaction from parents of young children, and more than half of all respondents said they wouldn’t buy products packaged with carbon monoxide.
“When you’re trying to sell meat, a difficult product to sell at the best of times, you’re selling on customer’s perception,” said Lovell.
Consumers are eating less meat, and the current Missy Higgins-fronted PETA vegetarian TV campaign is not helping, which is why MLA launched a new campaign featuring actor Sam Neill.
Green peas and red meat
When it all boils down, few are concerned about carbon dioxide poisoning via the meat.
The question is: do the red pigments mislead the customer and will they store it too long because it looks fresh.
“Let me answer that by going to another product,” said Lovell, “back in the 1970s, Marks and Spencers said we will not use any additives or colourants.”
“They told the people that canned their peas they didn’t want any colourants used.”
“Now if you can peas and don’t use any artificial colouring, they come out a grey colour - not green - and the consumer says I don’t want to know.”
“The consumer, who yells out quite reasonably that they don’t want all these bits and pieces bunged in, the fact is if you take them out, they like it even less.”