Consumers are generally accepting of modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) technology used to extend shelf-life and stabilize color in meat, according to a study published in the Journal of Food Protection. However, they seemed more wary of the technology when given more information about MAP and the introduction of carbon monoxide. MAP helps extend shelf-life of meat, while CO helps stabilize and improve the color of meat.

Carola Grebitus of Arizona State Univ. in Mesa, Ariz., led the study to explore consumer acceptance of MAP, including the use of carbon monoxide. A native of Germany, Grebitus says CO-MAP is not allowed in Europe, although some modified atmosphere packaging is permitted. She said the European Commission organized a committee to study potential dangers in CO, but the committee didn’t include consumer perception about the technology in the research.

“The committee found no danger and no harm, but they don’t allow any food packaged in CO-MAP,” Grebitus says. “So, if there is no harm and you never did a consumer study, how do you know that maybe consumers want that, and you take that chance away from them to buy that meat?

“Also, for the industry we have so much food waste, and whenever the meat turns brownish-red, consumers don’t want to buy it anymore and then we throw it away even though it’s still edible,” she adds.

The study, conducted at Iowa State Univ. in 2007, recruited consumers through newspapers ads, e-mail lists and leaflets. The product used in the study was 1-lb. portions of 85-percent lean ground beef prepackaged and wrapped in plastic film. The meat came from a local supermarket and the ISU Meat Laboratory. Researchers used three different ground beef packages: light-red ground beef packaged in oxygen-permeable overwrap at the ISU Meat Laboratory; brownish-red beef irradiated to “represent a meat color that has begun to deteriorate in retail display”; and bright cherry-red ground beef in CO-MAP bought at a local supermarket.

“Results confirm that shelf-life extension affects consumers’ willingness to pay for ground beef,” the study reports. Consumers preferred the longer shelf-life even after information about modified atmosphere packaging was given to them. But consumers’ trust in MAP weakened when given additional information about CO-MAP technology, according to the study.

“Although consumers clearly prefer bright red ground beef that results from CO packaging and are willing to pay for the color, their willingness to pay, although positive, decreases when they learn about the use of CO-MAP,” the study states.

Current concerns

One key concern about CO-MAP is that food safety may be compromised. After reviewing available literature, Grebitus found a major concern regarding CO-MAP was the bright red color of meat would give consumers a false sense of security.

“The longer shelf-life is only valuable as long as the product is still safe,” according to the study. “Because consumers might be prone to judge freshness of ground meat based on its color, thinking that bright-red color is fresher and safer could lead to a potential food-safety issue.”

Thus, consumer education must focus on the benefits of the technology while encouraging consumers to check ‘use-by’ or ‘best-by’ dates.

Another objective of the study was to determine the value consumers placed on packages of ground beef when color and shelf-life were the main choices.

“Consumers had clear preferences for brighter [aerobic and CO] red color and were willing to pay $0.16/lb. [$0.35/kg] for each level of change to the preferred color,” according to the study. But the study also revealed that more information about MAP and CO-MAP reduced consumers’ willingness pay for meat-quality attributes such as extended shelf-life and attractive color.

Grebitus says that despite a decline in consumers’ willingness to pay when given more information about the technology, a positive outcome was that consumers still preferred to buy meat in CO-MAP vs. meat that was brownish-red in color.

So, how can industry give consumers information about the benefits of a food technology without scaring them? Grebitus says more research is needed to assess how consumers perceive food labels. In Europe, food items packaged in MAP must be labeled, but such products do not require labeling in the US.

She relates a story about how a colleague in Germany did research into consumer perceptions of nanotechnology. He found that consumers liked nanotechnology because they were thinking of the Apple iPod Nano mp3 digital media player.

“What we are sometimes lacking is not carefully looking into how things are perceived, and what consumers associate with certain things we put on the packaging,” she said.

In Europe, modified atmosphere packaging is labeled as protective. Grebitus says using words such as ‘protective’ would be more positive compared to ‘modified’ because consumers may not understand what some of those terms mean.

“Just giving them the information that this technology increases your shelf-life and makes the meat more appealing without adding any chemicals – like coloring the meat – that probably could help,” she says.