As things currently stand, companies using non-synthetic sources of nitrates/nitrates such as celery, sea salt or beets as colors, flavors, curing agents or antimicrobials, are allowed to make the claims ‘No Nitrate or Nitrite Added’ or ‘Uncured’ on product labels accompanied by a fine-print qualifier such as, ‘Except those naturally occurring in celery powder.'
As a result, consumers are being misled, given that nitrates and nitrates are potentially harmful,* whether they are naturally occurring or not, argue the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Consumer Reports, which petitioned USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to change the rules last year.
In their petition, filed in August 2019, they called for the USDA to close this loophole and require companies to proactively disclose the use of nitrates or nitrates on the front of pack. They also called for manufacturers to describe their presence and function on the ingredients list in a certain way. eg. 'Celery powder (source of nitrates or nitrites for curing).'
"Processed meats prepared with non-synthetic sources of nitrates and nitrites, such as celery powder, contain nitrates and nitrites at similar levels to those prepared with synthetic sources like sodium nitrite... A wide variety of these meats now bear 'No Nitrate or Nitrite Added' claims that mislead consumers to believe that the meats are nitrate- and nitrite-free." CSPI, Consumer Reports petition, 2019
USDA: ‘We have decided to partially grant your request’
In a Dec 10, 2020 letter to the CSPI responding to the petition, the FSIS said it would propose new rules banning firms using natural sources of nitrates or nitrites in meats from making ‘No Nitrate/Nitrite’ or ‘Uncured’ claims.
However, it did not agree that firms should have to proactively label their use of nitrites or nitrites, said deputy administrator Rachel Edelstein: “We have decided to partially grant your request.
“FSIS intends to conduct rulemaking to propose to prohibit the statements, ‘No Nitrate or Nitrite Added’ and ‘Uncured,’ on products that have been processed using any source of nitrates or nitrites. FSIS also intends to approve non-synthetic sources of nitrates or nitrites as curing agents.
“However, rather than requiring disclosure statements about the use of nitrate or nitrites on labels of meat and poultry products, as requested in the petition, FSIS intends to propose to amend and clarify its meat and poultry labeling regulations to establish new definitions for ‘Cured’ and ‘Uncured.’
The basis for these proposed changes will be discussed in detail in a proposed rule, which has a tentative publication date of May 2021.
CSPI: Proposed changes will help, but ‘consumers will remain in the dark’
In a press release responding to the USDA’s letter, the CSPI welcomed the news about 'No Nitrate or Nitrite added' claims, but said failing to require disclosure of nitrates and nitrites meant “consumers will remain in the dark about the presence of these compounds in celery powder and other similar sources.”
Removing the ‘no nitrates claims “will help, but without a clear disclosure many consumers are not going to recognize that these meats are processed with nitrates and nitrites,” said Sarah Sorscher, CSPI deputy director of regulatory affairs.
“Claims that give the impression of a healthier product mislead consumers, so this action by USDA is a good first step " added Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumer Reports. "However, an additional requirement is needed for the labeling of nitrates and nitrites from natural sources in order to provide more clarity to consumers."
Are nitrates and nitrates in meat products safe?
*According to the CSPI, which references an International Agency for Research on Cancer monograph on processed meat, "Both synthetic and non-synthetic nitrates and nitrites may cause cancer," something the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) argues is not supported by evidence.
According to NAMI, "Numerous scientific panels have evaluated sodium nitrite safety and the conclusions have essentially been the same: nitrite is not only safe, it is an essential public health tool because it has a proven track record of preventing botulism."
In a public comment responding to the CSPI's petition, NAMI claims the petitioners "misrepresent the science on processed meat consumption and cancer risk," and says the National Toxicology Program conducted a multiyear rat and mouse feeding study and concluded that nitrite does not cause cancer at levels used in the meat industry.