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White Papers and Reference Papers

White papers and reference documents address the science behind current issues facing the meat industry. The following titles are currently available:

Natural and Organic Cured Meat Products: Regulatory, Manufacturing, Marketing, Quality and Safety Issues

Released March 5, 2007

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Executive Summary

Introduction

Processed meats are a significant part of the explosive market growth occurring in natural and organic foods. The requirements for natural or organic marketing do not permit addition of nitrite or nitrate. Nitrite, whether added directly or derived from nitrate, is a unique, distinctive ingredient for which there is no substitute. Consequently, process and product changes are necessary to produce natural or organic processed meats that provide the properties expected of traditional cured meat products. These process changes and the additional labeling requirements for these products have resulted in a category of processed meats that is confusing, and perhaps even misleading, to consumers. Further, quality and safety issues need careful examination in light of the processing changes introduced for natural and organic processed meats manufacturing.

Conventional Cured Meat Ingredients and Processes

The formulations for conventionally–cured meat products are characterized by the addition of nitrate and/or nitrite. Nitrite-meat mixtures are complex and highly reactive. Because nitrite, particularly as nitric oxide, so readily reacts with a wide variety of substrates, reaction kinetics may be an important determinant of how nitrite is proportioned among the wide array of competitive substrates and reaction products. Issues that have been raised concerning the safety of using nitrate and nitrite for curing meat have included chemical toxicity, formation of carcinogens in food or after ingestion, and reproductive and developmental toxicity. None of these issues represent relevant concerns for nitrate or nitrite in light of the current levels of use in processed meats.

Ingredients Used For Natural and Organic Cured Meats

Because of the negative perceptions of nitrite cured meat held by some consumers, the “uncured” natural and organic versions of typical cured meats have enjoyed wide-spread market acceptance. Recent analyses of commercially available natural and organic products have shown there is wide variation among the natural and organic processed meats that simulate conventionally cured products, and a large majority of natural and organic processed meats demonstrate typical cured meat properties, including cured color, flavor and significant concentrations of residual nitrite and nitrate. Thus, it is clear that nitrite and nitrate are being introduced to most of these products indirectly as components of other ingredients.

Unique ingredients in natural and organic processed meats

The most common ingredients observed in review of the product labels of natural and organic processed meats are sea salt and raw sugar. While both have been suggested as a possible source of nitrate, limited analytical information suggests that these ingredients contribute significant nitrate or nitrite to the product.

Natural flavorings or spices, and celery juice or celery juice concentrate are frequently listed as ingredients, and because these are plant/vegetable products, the potential contribution of nitrate from these sources is very significant. Celery juice and celery powder appear to be highly compatible with processed meat products because celery has very little vegetable pigment (as opposed to beets, for example) and a mild flavor profile similar to raw celery that does not detract greatly from finished product flavor. Further, these vegetable products may be listed as natural flavoring on meat product labels. When used with a starter culture, these ingredients are an effective alternative to the direct addition of sodium nitrite in some products.

The actual amounts of nitrite formed from nitrate when natural nitrate sources are used could be a concern relative to microbiological safety. The shelf life of processed meats manufactured with natural nitrate sources is generally shorter than that of nitrite-cured products because less nitrite is present and other typical preservatives such as phosphates, lactate, curing accelerators and antioxidants are not included (Bacus, 2006).

Processes for Naturally Cured Meats

Most processors that use “natural curing” are following processing procedures that are generally similar to those processes that include chemical nitrites and nitrates. Naturally-cured products typically use natural sources for nitrate, but some natural ingredients may also contain nitrites. If sufficient nitrite is consistently available from a natural source, no changes in the normal process are required.

Current Issues with Natural and Organic Cured Meats

Regulatory

The current regulatory issues concerning “organic” meat products are well defined by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, thus processors desiring to make such products must adhere to a fixed set of regulations outlining permitted ingredients. With “natural” meat products, however, the rules for permitted ingredients have recently become more confusing. Until August, 2005, “natural” simply meant “minimally processed” and “no artificial ingredients”, with any meat source considered natural. In 2005 additional ingredients, including sodium lactate (from a corn source), cane sugar, and natural flavorings from oleoresins and extractives were permitted to be labeled as “natural”.

A petition submitted to the USDA in October, 2006, suggested that the 2005 revisions to the agency’s “natural” policy created inconsistencies by allowing foods carrying the “natural” label to contain synthetic ingredients and preservatives, deceiving consumers and eroding the “natural” label to a meaningless marketing policy. Much of the concern expressed by the petitioner was the allowance of sodium and potassium lactates in “natural” products, since these ingredients would be considered “chemical preservatives”. Consequently, USDA reversed its position on the use of lactates, categorizing these ingredients as “chemical preservatives”.

The issue of lactates as “chemical preservatives” also raised the issue of dual-function ingredients, whereby the ingredient may be considered as a natural ingredient for flavor and/or function, but can also have a dual function as a “natural” preservative. The issue of “natural preservative” vs. “chemical preservative” has not been defined, as yet. Many natural compounds that exist in the environment can serve to inhibit microorganisms, retard oxidation, and thus “preserve” the product and would be valuable ingredients in food products that are labeled as “natural”. Until this issue of “natural” vs. “chemical” preservatives is resolved, the current regulatory environment is retarding innovative product development and may compromise food safety as well.

Manufacturing

When manufacturing “natural” and “organic” meat products using natural ingredients, the inherent variability of natural ingredients must be considered. Reduced shelf-life observed in naturally cured meats is probably due to the lack of other traditional ingredients that are not permitted in “natural” products.

Marketing

The consumer’s understanding of what is meant by “natural” meat products is difficult to define. Many consumers may not comprehend that natural ingredients often contain naturally occurring chemicals virtually identical in chemical nature to synthetically produced chemicals. Improved label terminology such as “naturally cured” would provide the consumer with the most accurate information, because the products are truly cured with naturally occurring nitrate and/or nitrite added in the form of natural ingredients. Using this terminology, the “uncured” and “no nitrates or nitrites added” label requirements could be eliminated. Adding the footnote “naturally occurring nitrites may be present”, would adequately inform the consumers of the potential existence of nitrite in the “naturally cured” products. Another alternative would be to allow processors to avoid the disclaimer or footnote if they can prove that they can control their process to eliminate any residual nitrites, which is the primary concern for many consumers, particularly in bacon.

Quality

The quality characteristics expected of traditional cured meats that are unique to these products include the reddish-pink color of cooked denatured nitrosylhemochrome, a flavor that is distinct from uncured products, and long-term flavor protection resulting from the strong antioxidant effect of nitrite on meat systems. If at least 50 ppm of nitrite is formed from nitrate during processing of meat products with natural nitrate sources, it appears that the typical quality characteristics expected of cured meat (color, flavor, flavor stability) will be achieved. A question that is more difficult to answer is the long-term stability of those quality characteristics. It is important to keep in mind that packaging and environmental conditions, particularly temperature and exposure to light, are critical to long-term cured meat quality, and become more critical when residual nitrite is reduced.

Safety

The safety of processed meats that simulate traditional cured meats by using natural sources of nitrate is a significant issue for two reasons; first, nitrite is a very effective antimicrobial agent and second; residual nitrite concentration is a well-known risk factor in the potential formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines. In both cases, ingoing and residual nitrite concentrations must be carefully controlled to provide product safety. The antimicrobial role of nitrite in cured meat has been well documented. The issue for processed meats that use natural sources of nitrate is that the true amount of nitrite formed is unknown and impossible to measure because nitrite reacts quickly with meat components. The microbial safety of these products is very difficult to assess without microbiological challenge studies. This is a very significant current research need that remains open in assessing the safety of these products.

The second potential safety issue with these products is the implications of higher-than-usual nitrite concentrations. Elevated residual nitrite in bacon is a potential risk for nitrosamine formation. More information is needed on the best means by which to control nitrite formation in processed meats manufactured with natural sources of nitrate to assure that excess concentrations of nitrite do not become a safety issue.

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