Petition to Prohibit the Use of “Uncured” and “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” on Processed Products that Contain Nitrite/Nitrate from “Natural” Sources

September 17, 2019By Riëtte van Laack

On August 29, 2019, the Center for Science and Public Interest (CSPI) and Consumer Reports (CR)  submitted a Petition to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of USDA concerning FSIS labeling requirements for meat and poultry products, such as bacon, hot dogs, and pepperoni, that have been processed with nitrates or nitrites.

Specifically, the petition requests that

  1. FSIS amend its labeling regulations to prohibit the statements “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” and “Uncured” on meat products that have been processed using any source of nitrates or nitrites;
  2. FSIS require that labeling of products processed with nitrite/nitrate containing ingredients include the statement “nitrates or nitrites added” in lettering at least one-half the size and prominence of the product name;
  3. FSIS require identification of ingredients used as a source of nitrates or nitrites in the product labeling, e.g., “celery powder (source of nitrates or nitrites for curing);”
  4. FSIS take steps to minimize levels of residual nitrates, nitrites, and nitrosamines in these products.

Traditionally, meat products have been cured by adding salt, nitrate, and/or nitrite to fresh-cut meats.  Technological advances mean that meat and poultry products that used to be cured with synthetic sources of nitrates and nitrites are now manufactured using celery powder and other non-synthetic sources. However, these “natural” source of nitrite/nitrate are not approved as curing agents.  Therefore, FSIS requires that products that are subject to a standard of identity regulation that requires a curing agent be labeled as “uncured” and “no nitrates or nitrites added.”  Petitioners claim that these labeling requirements are misleading because they cause the consumer to believe that products containing nitrite or nitrate from natural sources (e.g., celery) and labeled “uncured” and “no nitrate or nitrite added” are healthier than they are.  Yet, as data from Petitioners purportedly show, these uncured products contain nitrites and nitrates at similar levels as their cured counterparts.

On Sept. 13, 2019, FSIS announced that it is seeking comments on the Petition.  FSIS would like feedback as to how to distinguish labels for products with synthetic nitrites from labels for products with non-synthetic sources of nitrites, and data on consumer perception of the designations “uncured” vs. “cured.”  Anticipating that it may receive a “significant” number of comments, the Agency has decided to open a docket on  Comments must be submitted by November 12, 2019.