Additives have legal limits in cured meat products

Sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbate are added to meat at very low levels to prevent food poisoning.

In meat processing, many different ingredients are used to minimize the risk of food-borne pathogens reaching consumers. Despite the buzz about ‘clean labels’ and only eating things that don’t sound like chemicals, products like sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbate are used to keep consumers from becoming sick. Originally, naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites in sea salt and from vegetable sources were found to change the color of meat and keep it from spoiling. It was later discovered that sodium erythorbate was capable of accelerating the curing reaction, ensuring the entire product was protected.

Meat processors cure meat using an ingredient containing sodium nitrite, and there are legal limits on the amount of nitrite allowed to be added in meats. Ham and whole muscle products are allowed to have 200 ppm of nitrite, sausage is allowed 156 ppm, and bacon is allowed 120 ppm.

Michigan State University Extension created a video to demonstrate the calculations to determine ppm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Processing Inspectors’ Calculations Handbook is also very helpful in learning how to make necessary calculations required for meat processing and has many examples. Interestingly, as the product is cooked in the smokehouse, much of the nitrite dissipates.

Meat processors in Michigan who cure meat and are not USDA inspected are required by the FDA Food Code to obtain a Specialized Retail Meat Processing Variance by March 1, 2015. One of the requirements of the application is meat processors confirm that they are adding nitrite to their products within the legal limits and measuring and recording the amount added to each batch. Michigan State University Extension has an online training available. 

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