In a petition submitted to USDA on August 28, the Center for Science and Public Interest and Consumer Reports requested that the agency stop requiring the terms “Uncured” and “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” on labels for specific meats such as bacon, hot dogs, and pepperoni that have been processed with nitrates or nitrites from non-synthetic sources, such as celery powder. These groups believe that the labels are misleading and may give consumers the false impression that these products are healthier.
NITRATES/NITRITES IN CURED MEATS
Curing meat involved the addition of salt, nitrate, and/or nitrite to fresh-cut meats which enables preservation by removing moisture. Synthetic nitrates have been used since at least the 1920s to speed up the curing process but these synthetic nitrates could result in the formation of nitrosamines, some of which have been shown to be a carcinogenic in animal studies.
In the 1990s, manufacturers began developing new ways to cure meats with celery or other natural nitrate/nitrite sources. Federal labeling rules require meats processed in this manner to include the terms “Uncured” and the statement “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” because they do not use synthetic curing agents.
PETITION TO PROHIBIT NITRATE/NITRITE FREE CLAIM
The Center for Science and Public Interest and Consumer Reports are petitioning USDA to revise the rules so that the “Uncured” and “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” claims can only be made on meats prepared with no nitrates or nitrites from any source. The groups are instead urging the agency to require a disclosure stating “Nitrates or Nitrites Added,” with the source indicated in the ingredient list. Furthermore, they are also asking USDA to minimize the levels of residual nitrate, nitrite, and nitrosamines in meat processed with nitrates or nitrites.
Currently, products that are labeled as “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” generally include the statement “except those that are naturally occurring in [name of ingredient that is a source of nitrates or nitrites].” This language is generally included in the fine print on the packaging and does not explain that those compounds are chemically identical to synthetic ones.
Recently, Consumer Reports tested 31 packaged deli meats, including both name brand and store brand chicken, ham, roast beef, salami, and turkey products. Their test showed that nitrates and nitrites are found in processed meats labeled “Uncured” or “No Nitrates or Nitrites Added” at similar levels to those prepared with synthetic curing agents such as sodium nitrite.
Furthermore, earlier this year, Consumer Reports also conducted a survey of 1,000 Americans, 42 percent of whom said they would be confused about if or what type of nitrates were added in deli meats that bore the “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” label.
LEGAL IMPLICATIONS OF PETITIONS
The federal regulations for labeling of products containing nitrates/nitrites is not currently clear and depend on the type of food and curing agent used. When hot dog or bacon manufactures use natural curing agents, such as celery powder, in lieu of synthetic sodium nitrite, they are required to use terms such as “No Nitrates Added” or “Uncured” in order to label the packages as “hot dogs” or “bacon.” In other cases, food manufacturers may add these claims voluntarily, perhaps for marketing reasons.
The petition from the Center for Science and Public Interest and Consumer Report was filed with USDA’s Department of Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”). FSIS has the authority to exercise the functions of the Secretary of Agriculture as specific in the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. FSIS protects the public by verifying that meat, poultry, and egg products are safe, wholesome, unadulterated, and correctly labeled and packaged.
The petition will be considered for rulemaking under the FSIS’s petition regulations presented in 9 CPR part 392, which requires them to collect petitions and information related to the safety and labeling of meat, poultry, and eggs. The USDA has stated that the agency will review the petition and decide whether to address this issue based on their analysis.
To read the Consumer Report and Center for Science in the Public Interest’s petition, click here.
To read 9 CPR part 392, click here.
To learn more about food additives in meat and poultry, click here.
For more information on food labeling laws in the U.S., click here.