`Smarter' choice provides beef that keeps longer

May 16, 2007|By ROB KASPER

I cooked a new kind of hamburgers recently. The patties came encased in something called Smarter Package, a technique to help them last longer in the fridge without spoiling. Last week, this beef began appearing in 185 Giant Food supermarkets in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

These new hamburger patties were a brighter shade of red than most patties in my past. When I grilled them they tasted, well, like basic burgers.

A big difference, however, between the new burgers and the many burgers I have known was their color. These new ones remained adamantly red. They refused to turn brown when, in a deliberate display of faulty food-handling practices, I left a couple of raw patties out on a kitchen counter overnight. They clung to their red color even when, as my nose told me, they had gone south.

There is a "beef" about this new type of meat packaging. It boils down to this: The new packaging delivers a longer fridge life for the products but, in turn, meat eaters lose color as a clue to the meat's condition.

The ground beef in my new burgers had been through a process known as "modified atmosphere packing." It has been on the American food scene for a few years, approved for use with ground beef by the Food and Drug Administration in 2004. Some Giant turkey products have used it before it arrived in the supermarket's selection of ground-beef products.

The process removes oxygen from a package and replaces it with a mixture of gases. According to a Giant spokeswoman, the gases are primarily nitrogen, but there is also a small amount of carbon monoxide. They are harmless to human health at the levels they are being used, according to federal authorities.

Even critics of the packaging, such as Chris Waldrop of the Consumer Federation of America, agree that the gases it uses are safe. The problem, according to Waldrop, is the color the procedure gives the meat. "It has a bright-red color past the point of spoilage," Waldrop said from the advocacy group's Washington office. "For years, consumers were taught that a bright-red color equals freshness."

Waldrop's organization has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to reconsider its approval of treating red meat with carbon monoxide. It also commissioned a poll of consumers in 2006 that found that three-quarters of the respondents thought treating meat with carbon monoxide to preserve its color was deceptive.

Paulette Thompson, manager of health and wellness for Giant Food and a registered dietitian, said that judging the condition of meat by its color is a flawed technique. "The new packaging does stabilize the red color, but color is never the best indicator of spoilage," she said. A package of spoiled meat would bulge, and other signs - an off odor and slimy texture - are better clues than color, she said.

The best way to determine freshness of ground beef, she said, was to note the "use-by" dates that are emblazoned on the fronts of the Smarter Package meats.

Indeed, the two containers of Smarter Package ground beef patties that I picked up May 4 were clearly labeled with a notice that the meat should be used or frozen by May 20. The meat was housed in a 2-inch-tall black tray that was tightly covered with a thick plastic film. This package, according to Thompson, can be placed in the freezer without being rewrapped. It can remain in the freezer for up to six months, she said.

I think I know how I landed the assignment of tasting the new ground beef. I am a lifelong hamburger eater, an avid backyard griller and have been known to eat almost anything - including, a few summers ago, cooked cicadas.

After I picked up packages of hamburger patties that had just arrived at the Giant warehouse in Jessup on that Friday morning, I drove to Hampden and bought two packages of conventionally packaged ground beef at the Rotunda Giant. I hurried home and placed all the packages on the bottom shelf of my fridge.

The next Monday night, I cooked four burgers: two pulled from the Smarter Package supply and two made from meat from the conventional package.

The Smarter Package was difficult to open. I had to pierce its thick plastic film topping with a paring knife. Once its protective package is breached, the meat inside is exposed to oxygen and ages like conventionally packaged ground beef. Before cooking, I applied the sniff test to all the raw patties, and they passed. They also passed the texture test - no slime - as well as the somewhat discredited eyeball exam. Brown meat, my wife constantly reminds me, does not by itself mean that the meat is spoiled. But, in this case, all the meat was pink or red.

The dazzling Smarter Package patties did look brighter than the pale-pink patties I made by hand from the other package. On the grill, it took the Smarter Package patties a while to lose their trademark red color as they sizzled.

I cooked all the burgers until they measured 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. This, I admit, is a higher temperature than I usually cook my burgers, but it is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommended safe temperature, and I was cooking by the book.

As a result, they were a little dry. But helped along by some salsa and grilled onions, they passed the taste test. There was nothing distinctive, nor dangerous, about them.

Giant is employing the Smarter Package process on all of its packaged ground-beef products at no added cost to the consumer, Thompson told me. But customers still will have the option, she said, of buying a piece of chuck meat and having the store's butcher transform it into ground beef.

I might take advantage of that option. The new Smarter Package ground beef may last longer in my fridge, but it is simply too red for my taste.


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