Hamburger with a much longer shelf life using carbon monoxide-based technology may some day be coming to your local supermarket.
Although the packaging is available in U.S. grocery stores, it has not yet been approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says Sven Anders, principal investigator of a study on consumer acceptance of the technology conducted at the University of Alberta.
"The use of carbon monoxide in this type of modified atmosphere packaging has been used in a variety of food applications, but it has not in meat packaging," Anders, a professor of rural economy at the university, said in an interview.
The process seals a small amount of carbon monoxide gas inside the hamburger package, stabilizing the fresh cherry-red colour that he says consumers consistently prefer over light-red or brownish-coloured meat.
This gives the meat an extended shelf life of up to 14 days, exceeding the current three-day window.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless gas that when inhaled can be fatal, says the University of Guelph-based Food Safety Network. However, it says when the gas is used in packaging it is not harmful to health.
In the U.S., much media attention was given to the proposal of a complete ban on the use of carbon monoxide in foods by consumer groups and companies prior to its acceptance by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006.
For his research, Anders did a small study of Alberta consumers to see if there would be acceptance. He found that 60 per cent of the 205 people polled would be willing to pay more for the cherry-red colour and extended shelf life when they learned it was artificially obtained through the CO-modified atmosphere packaging process.
But he adds that prominent labelling and public information would be crucial factors in getting all shoppers to buy into the new packaging.
"The product looks better, but people would have to pay close attention to the expiry date."
In 2001, the European Commission carried out a review of the safety of carbon monoxide in foods and determined the application to be safe. It has been used in Norway for 20 years without incident.
However, the commission decided that most consumers were not ready to accept the technology and the use of carbon monoxide was prohibited.
Anders says he would like to see the carbon monoxide technology used in Canada for the savings an extended shelf life would bring to meat processors and retail distributors and ultimately to consumers.
Anders' findings, which he and a research team in the U.S. and Germany have presented at several conferences, were endorsed by the Canadian Meat Council and funded by the Alberta Livestock Industry Development Fund and the Canadian Beef Information Centre.
Alastair Sinclair, a spokesman for Health Canada, says that the use of carbon monoxide to improve the appearance and extend the shelf life of ground beef is not currently allowed in Canada.
"Should an applicant wish to use this technology on product to be sold in Canada, they would first have to make a submission to Health Canada to allow the use of the technology," he said in a statement.
"This submission would have to contain scientific information demonstrating the effectiveness and safety of the process," he says. "Health Canada scientists would review this data, along with any other information published in the scientific literature."
"Only once Health Canada scientists are satisfied that the process is safe and effective would it be allowed for use in Canada."
Pros and cons of modified atmosphere packaging
Here are the advantages and disadvantages of modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), the technique used for prolonging the shelf life of fresh or minimally processed foods:
- Longer shelf life allows wider distribution of food
- Fresh foods available year-round
- Attractive see-through packaging
- Requires less storage space time and labour for retailer
- Expensive equipment and materials (gases and packaging)
- Increased cost of transportation
- Potential safety risk as people may not keep the foods under the necessary storage conditions (refrigeration)