In 1914, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg referred to Chicago as “Hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat—city of the big shoulders.” Reputed as the nation's meatpacking hub after the Civil War, the industry’s presence in the city dwindled along with the rest of the Rust Belt’s manufacturing sector.
But today, in the warehouses along the Chicago River, with urban farms, trendy co-ops, and art galleries as its neighbors, smaller meat product manufacturers and services are making their stamp, such as Big Fork Brands, Think Jerky, The Butcher & Larder at Local Foods, and Red Meat Market.
The ingredients, products, and delivery methods today are a far jump from what was found in the city's stockyards of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Big Fork Brands, for example, came up with a novel combo of sausage and bacon. “We combine two meats into one, Big Fork is a super meat that’s all natural, nitrate free, and antibiotic free as well,” Lance Avery, the company's founder and chef, told FoodNavigator-USA.
Plant-based preservatives prevail
Nitrates and nitrites in meat went under special scrutiny from the public after the World Health Organization (WHO) classified “processed meats” as carcinogens. This increased consumer’s attention to the ingredients lists of meat products they buy; a push for brands like Big Fork to seek out alternatives if they haven’t already.
For his bacon sausages, Avery said he uses celery powder. “We [needed] a natural preservative, plain and simple,” he said about finding a way to keep his products fresh longer. “I have tested several other preservatives in the market but celery powder is the only one that extends our shelf life.”
It may work for relatively smaller brands like Avery’s, but will it work for the category at large? A review published last fall in Trends in Food Science & Technology explored whether or not nitrate-free processed meat is possible for the mass market. Around the same time, big companies like Corbion were developing plant-based nitrate alternatives for meat products.
In September 2015, Corbion Purac launched Verdad Avanta, which they market as a range of clean label preservatives “derived from natural common food pantry ingredients.”
“One of the components, vinegar, is produced by fermentation and is a rich source of acetic acid which is a well-known inhibitor of microbes and pathogens,” said David Charest, Corbion’s Industry Director Meat, North America. “With the Verdad Avanta portfolio we have combined our vinegar with other ingredients such as citrus flour, to add additional functionality that delivers beyond food safety and shelf life.”
In January this year, Corbion extended their line and released a vinegar and celery powder preservative, marketed Verdad Avanta C100. Though Avery did not disclose what brand of celery powder he uses, Charest concurs that the plant-based preservative is a good option for cured and smoked meats.
“[The vinegar and celery powder] provides a natural source of nitrite and can be used for smoked meats bearing a natural claim," he said. "Chemical nitrites by themselves are weak Listeria solutions. By combining celery powder, which is naturally rich in nitrate and performs the same curing functions, with vinegar, you also get added Listeria control."
More meat please
A report released by the Food Marketing Institute and the North American Meat Institute said that there continues to be growth for convenient value-added meat. And as protein remains the nutrient under the spotlight, meat snacks are poised for continued growth.
Meat products on the market have evolved beyond just lunch meat, breakfast sausages, and frozen nuggets. The trend today is big enough to create a mini food chain—smaller brands launch meat bars and jerkies, some of which may end up being bought by a bigger one.
“We see increase in what customers would consider healthier choices which includes natural labels,” Charest said. “These types of products will require preservatives to have the product ready when the consumer wants to [consume] it, however many households now have a desire for these preservatives to be natural, enabling them to feel good about what they are preparing for their families.”