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 to products such as bacon.
But opponents claim nitrates are unsafe, where they form carcinogenic nitrosamines at high temperatures and have been linked with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer; a 2010 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute also linked nitrates to chronic liver disease (CLD).
The EC set a deadline of December 31 2010 to review nitrate use before contemplating removing them from the list of permitted organic food additives under EC Regulation 889/2008, a move opponents claimed could decimate the EU’s organic bacon industry.
Safety and meat colour at stake
Last November, our sister site FoodManufacture.co.uk reported that EU agriculture ministries had returned a questionnaire sent out by the EC, asking them to report on progress in research on the replacement on nitrates and nitrates in organic food.
However, 16 of the 24 member states that replied to the questionnaire said they were not ready to withdraw use of these additives – 2 supported their wholesale withdrawal, 1 reduced levels – citing safety and meat colour as the principle reasons.
As an EC organ, the EU Standing Committee on Organic Farming met on Monday this week to and noted member state concerns, and citing concerns over botulism and listeriosis, colour and taste and the lack of viable alternatives.
For instance, plant extracts rich in nitrates cannot be used for legal and technical reasons, while sea salt (also with high levels) cannot be used because of obvious health concerns surrounding overuse of sodium chloride.
Nonetheless, the EC has proposed to review the future use of nitrates at a future, but as a yet unspecified date, which DEFRA (the UK department department for the environment, food and rural affairs) said would be in around 3-5 years time.
EC forced to back down
Clare Cheney, director general of UK-based Provision Trade Federation (PTF), which represent producers and opposed the ban, told FoodNavigator.com: “The EC was virtually forced to come to this conclusion – it really didn’t have any other option given the extent of Member State opposition.”
“It was a clear choice between having an organic bacon industry or withdrawing nitrates. There’s been extensive discussion and research into alternatives, but there are none.
“Plant extracts can be used instead of E250 and E252, but these are also high in nitrates so you are left with the same problem.”
Organic control body Organic Farmers & Growers said safety concerns had been paramount to it during discussions about nitrate withdrawal over the past 2 years. Chief executive Richard Jacobs said:
”While we prefer to see as few additives as possible in organic products, safety must come first and unless a proven alternative can be found, sodium nitrite and potassium nitrate will have to remain available to those curing organic meat.”
”The most likely outcome of their loss would have been the collapse of the market for organic bacon and related products, as many processors may have come down on the side of caution and abandoned product lines they could not be confident in producing safely.
“Nor does it seem likely that many shoppers would be willing to accept a change to a rather unappetising looking, greyish product.”