The term “uncured” has long been used to describe meats prepared without the direct addition of curing salts made with synthetic nitrates and nitrites, rather they are often formulated with natural ingredients that are inherent sources of nitrates and nitrites. This includes plant extracts, usually in powder form. Celery powders are the most common, followed by spinach and Swiss chard.

The US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) requires companies that take this natural approach to label the product as “uncured” with “no nitrates or nitrites” and to include a disclaimer that identifies the natural source of nitrates and nitrites. A petition by two consumer groups — Consumer Reports, Westchester, New York, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C., — now claims that these products have about the same amount of residual nitrates and nitrites as those that use synthetic sources and urges USDA to change the regulations to not mislead consumers.

Global law firm Jones Day recently published a white paper on this topic. You can download a copy HERE.

Nitrates and nitrites produce desirable color in processed meats. They also are responsible for adding a zingy, tangy flavor. This is regardless of source. The petition asks USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to require a label that states that the product includes added nitrates and nitrites even when natural sources of nitrates and nitrites are used.

Meat processors should pay close attention to these proposed changes, as if they become law, labels may need to be changed. Any new regulations would not go into effect until January 2022 at the earliest, according to Jones Day.

Processors currently using plant extracts that are inherent sources of nitrates and nitrites would have two options. They could change the vernacular on labels and supporting marketing materials to comply with the law or they could reformulate with true “uncured” ingredient options. These are based on fruit and spice extracts that contain polyphenols and flavonoid antioxidants that fix the iron in the meat myoglobin and create cured color and flavor with no or very miniscule amounts of residual nitrites. These are often paired with all-natural food safety ingredients in order to assist with shelf life.