USDA expands its definition of nitrates

15 Jan 2021

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will expand the definition of nitrates in May 2021 to prohibit products using any source of nitrates from using the statements “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” and “Uncured.” Sources of nitrates, both synthetic and natural, will be considered curing agents.

This new ruling is in response to a petition sent by the Center for Science in the Public Interest requesting the governmental agency to revise its position on nitrates as the current labeling system is misleading. In the petition, the agency asked for the USDA to require labeling non-synthetic sources of nitrates, such as celery powder, as curing agents; require nitrate ingredients to be listed on the nutrition panel; require a disclosure such as “Nitrates or nitrites added” on all products prepared with any sources of nitrates; and prohibit the statements, “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” and “Uncured,” on products that have been processed using any source of nitrates.

USDA expands its definition of nitrates

While several of these requests were granted, the USDA is not obliging manufacturers to disclose of the use of nitrates when non-synthetic sources are used. Instead, the agency said that the amended definitions of “cured” and “uncured” will clarify the current confusion around the use of nitrate sources.

Such sweeping changes to the definition of nitrates will certainly affect the food industry as many manufacturers have sought to clean up their food labels and erase the term nitrates from them by using vegetal-based nitrate substitutes. However, now that these sources are considered nitrates, companies will once again have to redesign their labels or reformulate their products if they wish to keep nitrates from appearing on labels.

Despite the push to remove the term from visibility, nitrates are an important addition to many products, particularly processed meats, as they act as preservatives that prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria. Despite their efficacy, consumers have largely taken the stance that they prefer to not have nitrates in their food. There have been studies showing that nitrates lead to the body developing carcinogens; a fact that was noted in the petition by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Pressure from consumers has led to manufacturers working to devise alternative preservation solutions. While natural ingredients like sage, salt and vinegar are widely used, they remain less popular than nitrate solutions for preservation.

With nearly half of consumers searching for “no nitrates added” labels when purchasing products, according to a 2019 Consumer Reports survey, manufacturers will have to consider both the advantages and disadvantages of continuing to rely on nitrates to preserve products.

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