Under the microscope: cured meats

The preservation of meat by curing has been practised for centuries. The ancient Greeks used salt to preserve fish and the Romans preserved fish and meat with pickles containing salt and other ingredients.

Nowadays, dry curing tends to be used for speciality products, injection curing for more mainstream products, and immersion curing for some traditional products, such as Wiltshire cured items.

Sodium nitrite (E250) and potassium nitrate (E252) are widely used as curing agents. Nitrate is converted to nitrite, and it is nitrite that carries out important functions in cured meats, such as imparting the pink 'cured-meat colour' and inhibiting microbial growth.

Permitted levels of nitrates/nitrites are stipulated by law. For cured organic meats, the permitted levels are somewhat lower than non-organic ones. Commission Regulation (EC) 889/2008 set a deadline of 31 December 2010 to review efforts made by member states to find safe alternatives for nitrates and nitrites in organic cured meats in order to allay fears that nitrites pose a health threat.

To help gauge the impact of any changes, Defra commissioned Campden BRI to conduct a review of the subject. From the data received it seems that nitrite can inhibit a range of pathogens when used in combination with low storage temperature, reduced pH and increased salt levels.

Simultaneous changes in two factors could have consequences for food safety. Such changes would also have commercial implications as the shelf-life and HACCP plans of products would need to be re-evaluated. The review found that there is no single available alternative to nitrite that can produce all the desirable cured characteristics, including microbial stability.

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