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Organic body calls for unified response on nitrate and nitrite use

Date Published: 14/10/2009

Meat processors need a concerted response to proposals that could see nitrates and nitrites removed from the organic standards before damage is done to the sector, according to a leading certifier.

Organic Farmers & Growers said it was extremely concerned that a move towards banning these processing aids could lead to a major risk to public health and a collapse in the market for organic cured meats such as bacon and ham.

Regulation changes currently under discussion in Europe could see nitrates and nitrites banned from organic cured meat products within two years.

OF&G is arguing that while organic processors should aim for the absolute minimum of additives and preservatives, this should not be at the expense of public safety.

Currently no viable alternatives to nitrates have been discovered, other than substances which introduce nitrates and nitrites from natural sources (such as celery juice) but which are harder to control for reliable food safety. These are also somewhat misleading, because the pack declaration would state “celery juice” rather than “sodium nitrite” or “sodium nitrate”, even though the celery juice is only present because it contains these ingredients.

OF&G Chief Executive, Richard Jacobs, said: “We shouldn’t forget that botulism doesn’t just make people ill, it can kill. We must retain a completely reliable defence against it until there is a robust alternative.”

The European Food Safety Authority, which advises the EU, stated in 2003 “substantial research efforts failed to identify an alternative to sodium nitrite for the production of cured meat products.” OF&G is not aware of any change to this position since then.

“What concerns us is that there are people in the industry, particularly in Denmark, who tell us it’s possible to make cured meat products such as bacon without nitrates and nitrites. They say there is no problem, other than that the product is grey, has a shorter shelf life, has a high salt content and must be made, stored and transported under excellent hygiene conditions and temperature control, all of which raise concerns. OF&G does not think that many retailers would accept the inherent food safety risk of selling this type of product, nor would many customers want to buy it.”

Mr Jacobs said the industry needed to make its feelings clear to Defra before further steps were taken towards a ban.

He explained: “What we need to guard against now is a rash edict from Europe that could damage an entire sector while at the same time putting people’s lives at risk. I appreciate that sounds quite dramatic, but unrealistic decisions out of Europe are not unheard of and botulism is a clear food safety risk.

“We would always prefer to have no additives in organic processing, but none of the industry experts we have spoken to, nor our own food scientist, believes there is a safe alternative available, so we need to draw a line in the sand. We’ve raised this impending issue with our licensees, but it will take the whole sector to get the message across loud and clear that no rash decisions should be taken.”

OF&G is urging all relevant industry members to make representations to Defra, allowing it to take a comprehensive body of evidence to discussions on the issue in Europe.