News reports last week revealed that some of New Zealand’s meat undergoes a process called ‘gas flushing’, in which carbon dioxide and oxygen is pumped into meat packaging to significantly lengthen the meat’s shelf-life. But what does that actually mean and what do consumers need to know?

Meats which have undergone the process, also called Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), are not currently labelled as such, and the practise is used only by some of New Zealand’s food retailers.

The SMC approached local experts for comment on the practise, and its effects on the quality, nutrition and safety of meat.

Associate Professor Jonathan Hickford, President of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science at Lincoln University, comments:
“This would be an issue if we actually could define the “value” of “fresh meat”.

“Everyone wants meat (and in fact anything else in the supermarket) to be safe and in that respect we are reliant on the NZFSA to set and monitor industry requirements. They are required by Australasian law to do their job well. It appears that the safety of the gassed meat is beyond reproach. In this context, bacterial safety is probably of most concern – but that is the purpose of these gassing techniques – they are designed to limit bacterial spoilage, while enhancing meat quality.

“Gassing per se is not unique in that meat preservation technologies have existed for thousands of years, from things as simple as drying and salting, through curing and canning to gassing and use of other preservatives. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it is undesirable or less valuable. Perhaps one of the best examples being Parma ham, where the pig meat is essentially salt cured (uncooked) and then dried for 18 months or more. It retails for $400-600 for a leg, or about $75 per kilogram. Age isn’t an issue and there is apparently little relationship between age and quality in the broader meat market.

“On the positive, the prolonged storage of gassed meat may assist the meat tenderisation process. Export chilled (not frozen) meat products “condition” in cool storage as they are transported by ship to overseas markets. They command the market premium in those markets.

“On the negative, consumers need to always be aware of the risk associated with the consumption of high levels of saturated fat, as is typically the case with any meat.

“This all stated – Sue Kedgley is undoubtedly correct. The consumer always has a right to know and in this respect all food suppliers need to be able to describe and prove the safety and quality of their supply mechanisms. This isn’t just meat specific and the same is true of any food or beverage. Whether this information can be effectively “put on a label” is another issue and one that is grappled with all the time in the food sector.”

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