Acceptable additives

by Donna Berry
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 Safe Food
Increased use of food additives by manufacturers coincided with consumer demand for more prepared, processed and convenience foods. 
 

Additives play an important role in food processing, with many assisting in the production of affordable, quality and safe food. Though numerous meat and poultry processors are currently trying to eliminate chemical-sounding ingredients from product formulations, it is important to understand that some products, based on use, positioning and price point in the market, cannot be formulated to be so called “clean label.” Traditional, standard, proven-to-be safe ingredients are required. Some such ingredients fall into the categories of lactates and phosphates.

Historical perspective

Ingredients approved for use as food additives by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been used for thousands of years; however, only since 1958 have they been federally regulated. This was when the Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act passed. It was put in place to prevent the sale of misbranded and adulterated foods. Today, more than 3,000 substances are recognized food additives, with salt and sugar the most widely used throughout the food industry. 

The term “food additive” is defined by FDA as any substance that – directly or indirectly – becomes a component or otherwise affects the characteristics of any food. This definition includes any substance used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation or storage of food. Additives are used to maintain or improve safety, freshness, nutritional value, taste, texture and appearance. Increased use of food additives by manufacturers coincided with consumer demand for more prepared, processed and convenience foods.

Before any substance can be added to food, its safety must be assessed by a stringent approval process. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) shares responsibility with FDA for the safety of food additives used in meat, poultry and egg products, with all additives initially evaluated for safety by FDA.

This is something food activists typically fail to communicate, as they’d rather use scare tactics to worry consumers that their foods are unsafe or unfit for human consumption. The fact is, ingredients are only allowed in food after they have been thoroughly evaluated and deemed safe. The US has one of the safest food supply chains in the world and this is a result of these strict food safety regulations.

When it comes to approving an additive specifically for use in meat or poultry, its safety, technical function and conditions of use must also be evaluated by the Risk, Innovations and Management Staff of FSIS, as provided in the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and related regulations. Although FDA has overriding authority regarding additive safety, FSIS may apply even stricter standards that take into account the unique characteristics of meat and poultry. For example, several years ago, permission was sought to use sorbic acid in meat salads. Although sorbic acid is an approved food additive, permission for use in meat salad was denied because such usage could mask spoilage caused by organisms that cause foodborne illness.

The government is indeed looking out for the welfare of its people, so much so that additives are never given permanent approval. Their safety is continually reviewed. Based on the best scientific knowledge, regulators determine if approvals should be modified or withdrawn.

Back in 1958, the Food Additives Amendment exempted two groups of additives from FDA’s testing and approval process. The first group – known as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) – includes substances considered harmless under prescribed conditions of use. Examples include flavorings and spices, as well as lactates and phosphates.

The other group is known as “substances with prior sanction.” These additives were approved by USDA and FDA for use in foods prior to the passage of the 1958 Food Additives Amendment. This list includes common curing ingredients, such as potassium nitrite and sodium nitrite.

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