Sodium nitrite (E250) and potassium nitrate (E252) are widely used in cured meats to prevent the growth of pathogens such as clostridium botulinum, the bacterium responsible for botulism, and add flavour and colour.
However, the European Commission (EC) has set a deadline of December 31 2010 to review nitrate use before contemplating a wholesale ban of these additives in organic cured meats.
This is a result of pressure from countries such as Denmark, which argue that nitrates are non-organic and increase carcinogenic nitrosamine intake amongst consumers.
A Soil Association spokeswoman said that the body sympathised with the worries of organic bacon producers, many of whom are worried about the quality results of nitrate alternatives, as well as the potential need to invest heavily in new equipment and processes in the event of any ban.
She said:“We are very supportive of organic bacon manufacturers and are actively working with DEFRA [the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs] on a case to put to the EU Commission to support an amendment of the EU regulation.”
Asked about the scope of such an amendment, she said that Soil Association head of standards Chris Atkinson thought it would involve an “indefinite delay” to implementation.
Provision Trade Federation (PTF) director general Clare Cheney said that such a delay was crucial: “Otherwise it will spell the end of the organic bacon industry in the UK; moreover, the absurd thing is that vegetable-based alternatives to nitrates are still, essentially, nitrates.”
Organic bacon ruin
Many UK producers believe that the preservatives are safe at current usage levels, and are essential to the taste, colour and shelf-life of English bacon.
Jonathan Rees from Graig Farm Organics, which produces organic cured meats for independent retailers and health food stores, said that a ban would “ruin an organic bacon industry in the UK that is booming.
“Years ago we simply cured ham using common salt [sodium chloride] but this takes too long nowadays. I’ve tried all sorts of alternative salt-based methods to nitrates over the last four years, to no avail,” he said.
“I don’t really see any viable alternatives, because manufacturing windows are too small, if, say, you’re sending out 180kg of bacon every Thursday.
“Consumer demand is also crucial: people demand pink bacon, but if you want to achieve this without nitrates then I’m afraid it will cost more. Coupled with greater inconsistency of curing in the end product and the risk of botulism, it’s simply not worth the risk.”
However, in a recent report, an independent EC expert panel said that Denmark was a country where nitrates has not been used in organic meat products for “morethan 10 years,” with no detriment to a growing market.
But a UK meat industry insider told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “It is ironic that the Danes are pushing for an EU ban, given that their own prohibition only relates to bacon produced for their relatively small domestic market, not their massive export trade, where it will be harder to get rid of nitrates.”
Accordingly, DEFRA and UK industry groups such as the Soil Association and the PTF are asking the EC to amend the proposed regulation banning nitrates in light of evidential submissions, of which DEFRA research into alternatives forms one part.
FoodManufacture.co.uk understands that DEFRA will tell industry stakeholders at a meeting tomorrow (September 7) that more departmental research is necessary.
This is due to the variable quality of results to date, and the lack of one single alternative providing the requisite microbial stability, colour and flavour.
DEFRA’s research is thought to have concentrated on the viability of reducing nitrates (and nitrosamine levels) in organic cured meat rather than replacing them wholesale, although scientists believe that non-nitrate composite mixtures may eventually provide nitrate-free cures.
According to a DEFRA spokesperson:“Europe is reviewing the use of nitrates and nitrites in organic bacon and cured meats under the EU Organic Standards later this year.
“We’re working with producers to look at how any changes might affect UK producers, as well as looking at the scientific evidence on food safety, before making a decision on whether we think any changes are necessary.”
A March 2007 White Paper published by the non-profit American Meat Science Association, entitled ‘Natural and Organic Cured Meat Products’, proposed several ‘natural’ alternatives to so-called ‘chemical nitrates’, including vinegar, lemon juice solids and cherry powder.