New research examines the safety of First Nations smoked meat
Thinly sliced pieces of sockeye salmon, crusted with salt, hang impaled above a pile of smoldering logs in a wood-framed smokehouse. The logs pop and crackle as the fire grows hotter. Fat from the fish drips onto the flames, filling the air with clouds of smoke. The aroma is rich and appetizing, and the smoked salmon is all but irresistible.
This food preservation method is a long-held tradition for many First Nations communities, including in British Columbia’s Interior. But with recent studies linking meat cooked at high temperatures to cancer, the reliance on wood-framed smokehouses could pose a serious health risk.
A two-year research project led by David Kitts and Kevin Allen, food scientists at the University of British Columbia, is exploring this critical concern.
“Smoking practices used by First Nations communities have never been evaluated for safety,” says Kitts. “There’s potential that pollutants are getting into the meats they eat.”
A food partnership
Allen, Kitts and their team of researchers are working with the Lake Babine Nation and Nee Tahi Buhn, two First Nations communities in Burns Lake, B.C., to test and evaluate the safety of the meat they catch and eat, right down to the microbial level. The majority of members from both communities eat traditionally preserved foods.
Cooking wild game or fish in a smokehouse requires high heat, which can result in cancer-causing chemicals that contaminate the meat. These chemicals – called polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – are especially harmful to pregnant women and have been linked to a number of health conditions besides cancer, including developmental delays and asthma in newborn babies.
“Modern smokehouses have an external generator that allows you to control the temperature and smoking time, which helps reduce carcinogenic risk,” explains Kitts. “Wood-framed smokehouses used by First Nations communities have no such technology, increasing the risk of exposure.”
Preserving health and traditional knowledge
But for these two B.C. communities, meat isn’t the only thing being preserved with this traditional method. The cultural aspect of First Nations cooking remains an important way of life, so elders and community members will be working with the research team to develop risk-management strategies for smoking and curing meat.
Some First Nation members are beginning to use different seasonings as an alternative to salt, which may contribute to hypertension. In addition, some members now use commercial electric appliances to smoke food. These two strategies are being tested for possible benefits.
Results of the research will be released when the project concludes in June 2015. Kitts says the overall goal for of the project is to ensure both health officials and First Nations communities are better informed about the risks associated with traditional preservation methods, and if necessary, find ways to improve them.
“We’re hopeful that the chemicals and salt aren’t at levels that would be considered hazardous,” he says.