Eric Akis: Mussels keep fresh longer in modified packaging

akis.jpgDear Eric: I was wondering if you have ever used the mussels they sell at Costco? They seem to have a shelf life of a couple of weeks due to over oxygenation prior to packaging, if I understood it right. I looked up the product online, but I’m still not quite comfortable using it. Your comment would be appreciated. Larry Taylor

Dear Larry: Live mussels farmed on Canada’s East Coast, in places such as Prince Edward Island, are shipped and sold across our country and around the world. In an effort to extend the shelf life of this perishable product, in recent years, as Larry discovered, some processors have been selling their mussels in modified atmosphere packaging.

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According to, a website providing information on this process, to package a product in a modified atmosphere, machinery is used to flush out air from the packaging chamber. That air is then replaced with a different gas or precisely defined mixture of gases, such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

That website adds that the product in the package is sealed so that only the modified atmosphere surrounds the product. The gases in the package helps ensure that the product will stay fresh for as long as possible by, among other things, inhibiting the reproduction of micro-organisms and reducing the oxidation process.

Patrick Warren, managing director of Smokey Bay Seafood Company, which sells shellfish to domestic and international markets, says that when mussels are harvested, cleaned, sorted and packed in mesh bags and stored properly, they have about a five-day shelf life. However, when sealed in modified atmosphere packaging, he says that shelf life is extended by an additional seven to 10 days.

“I am not aware of any risk or downsides of this type of packaging. By changing the atmosphere in the pack we change the metabolic rate of the animal. The nutrients remain,” said Warren. “[In the package] they are alive, in a stasis, they are dormant, and respiring very slowing.”

Beyond fresh seafood, modified atmosphere packaging is used for a wide range of other foods, such as fresh pasta, cheese and meat. As for a downside to this type of packaging for mussels, Warren says that customers don’t get to feel or smell the shellfish before purchasing.

“If the mussel is at the end of its sell by date it might be harder for the consumer to tell as it is sealed. Just like buying a sack of apples or potatoes. But you would have that anyway with mesh-bagged mussels,” said Warren.

Warren believes what you buy comes down to customer preference, but notes an upside to modified atmosphere packaging is that it won’t leak in your fridge, it’s easy to store, and you can wait a few days before you eat the mussels. Once you do open the package, he says to use the mussels within two to three days, or before the best- before date.

I have not tried mussels packed this way. I usually buy mussels that have been farmed on Vancouver Island, which are sold at some supermarkets and seafood stores. They are packed in mesh bags and that makes sense as the short time it takes to get these mussels to market does not require them to be packed in something that will keep them alive for up to two weeks.

If you would like some new and interesting ways to prepare mussels, purchase a copy of the recently published book Mussels: Preparing, Cooking and Enjoying Sensational Seafood (Whitecap Books).

This book, co-authored by Alain Bossé and Linda Duncan, shows you how easy it is to choose, store and cook this healthy and tasty seafood. The book also has dozens of recipes for using mussels in every type of dish, from appetizers, salads and mains, to places where you might not think to use them, such as pickles, pies and cocktails. Today’s recipe is from Bossé and Duncan’s book.


Barbecue beer mussels

This recipe is from the recently published book Mussels: Preparing, Cooking and Enjoying Sensational Seafood. It’s a great dish to make on the side burner of your barbecue, but you could, of course, cook it on the stove in your house.

One of the book’s author, Linda Duncan, says her family usually dips steamed mussels in melted butter regardless of what they have been steamed with, and this recipe is no different. Serves 6.


5 lb mussels

8 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch squares

1 small onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped fennel

1/4 cup finely chopped carrots

1 garlic clove, sliced

1 bottle of your favourite beer — half for the dish and half for the cook to drink

2 Tbsp barbecue sauce

1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup melted butter

Rinse the mussels under running fresh water. Throw away any that do not close.

In a large pot, add the bacon and stir until it is browned. Add the onion, fennel, carrots and garlic and stir for a couple of minutes.

Add the mussels, pour in the beer and sprinkle the barbecue sauce overtop. Cover with a lid, and turn the heat up to the highest setting.

When steam starts to barrel out from under the lid, the mussels are ready (about 6 to 8 minutes).

Spoon into a big bowl for family-style eating, or into individual bowls, and sprinkle the fresh parsley on top.

Serve with crusty bread, and dip the mussels into melted butter before popping them in your mouth.

Eric Akis is the author of the hardcover book Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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