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They’ve saved our bacon!

Date Published: 27/01/2011

Within the last few minutes it has been revealed that plans to remove the use of sodium nitrite and potassium nitrate from organic meat curing have (for the time being at least) been dropped by the EU.

Since 2008 a question mark has hung over these two processing aids, with the aim of them being withdrawn from use under the organic regulations. The problem with this plan was that they are the best protection against botulism and listeriosis in food – both of which are very serious for humans.

The loss of nitrates and nitrites in cured meat processing would have led to a serious public health risk, not to mention the probable collapse of the market for organic bacon and other cured meats, because they also contribute to the expected colour and flavour of these products. The reason we don’t hear regularly about food-borne botulism cases is because of robust food safety regulations.

Some alternatives have been suggested to try to achieve the same results in a more natural way, but food scientists have failed to find a way to provide the same consistency of protection from these alternative processes. And you don’t mess about with botulism; it kills people.

Today it has been confirmed by Defra that no ban will be imposed and the issue will be revisited in three to five years, though no date has been set. This will no doubt lead to huge sighs of relief from those involved in organic cured meat production, not to mention those who enjoy a nice organic bacon sandwich!

So why the problem with nitrates and nitrites in the first place? There are some concerns that they are, like many additives, carcinogenic in larger and sustained quantities. This is a concern that should always be taken seriously. However, like everything, it is generally understood that there should be no harm if they are used in moderation. And it’s certainly by far the lesser of all evils to prevent botulism and listeriosis, which pose a far more immediate threat.

Nitrate and nitrite use is not unique to organic meat curing, by the way. It’s used across that industry, both organic and non-organic. And while it is always preferred by the organic sector to have the absolute minimum of processing aids and additives in food, this was a serious public health issue and something not to be messed around with lightly.

If better alternatives should come to light for processing organic cured meats, the EU Commission reserves the right to remove any substance from the organic regulation if it can be shown they are no longer needed. Giving the industry more time to move in that direction, while keeping consumers safe was the right thing to do.