Alternative curing is no longer considered a “new” technology. It has now been over 10 years since this unique approach to curing has been widely utilized in meat and poultry plants across the country. However, the idea and concepts of alternative curing have been explored, investigated, and implemented (with marginal success) at some level for several decades. To understand some of the rationale for supporting this technology, one can look at the historic period during the early 1970’s when sodium nitrite was nearly abolished as a legal ingredient for meat and poultry product curing due to reports, research findings, and a general “concern” that nitrite caused a variety of human cancers. Thankfully, strong science, compelling rebuttals and arguments, and a convincing realization the nitrite/cancer relationship and the associated accusations were simply not true provided a means to navigate through this time of nitrite uncertainty. Today, research has not only supported the food and human safeties of nitrite but has also provided strong evidence that nitrite is essential in the human diet to ensure human health. In fact, due to this recently discovered nitrite/human health relationship, nitrite has been loosely classified as a vitamin with intake essential for maintaining good human health. And, although alternative curing was initially and partly invented due to a significant human safety response, today that emphasis has been replaced by consumer interests, demands, and availability for high quality “cured” processed meats not including “chemical” ingredients or associated with the periodically re-energized stigma related to health concerns.
Alternative curing is a term that has been created in recent times as an attempt to accurately describe the technology where utilizing natural sources/versions of traditional (aka conventional) curing ingredients (eg. nitrite, erythorbate, etc.) to accomplish the principles of curing. As with all technologies, significant advancements have ensued and that is certainly the case here. Over the last 10-12 years, scientific and practical application learnings have shifted from feasibility and successful application with finished product quality and quality shelf life serving as the gage to food safety where the control of controlling a variety of pathogenic bacteria has been the focus.
One critically important basic concept regarding alternative curing has always existed, has not always been agreed on but must be accepted for quality and safety assurances: nitrite is nitrite, regardless of the source. Because an extremely large body of knowledge (including both published scientific research and real word studies) exists regarding quality and safety implications of purified nitrite, all of this information remains valid for alternative sources if this basic concept is accepted. With acceptance, this opens up the fields of opportunity to apply what is so well known for “conventionally cured” products to now be applied to “alternatively cured” versions.
Recognition of this “nitrite is nitrite, regardless of source/equivalence” concept has been made numerous times over the past several years and a recently published study has even resulted in a regulatory acknowledgement. With “nitrite is nitrite” serving as the focus of the study, researchers effectively communicated equivalencies between purified and natural sources of nitrite during the stabilization of turkey breast (King, A. M., Glass, K.A., Milkowski, A.L., Sindelar, J.J. 2015. Comparison of the Effect of Curing Ingredients Derived from Purified and Natural Sources on Inhibition of Clostridium perfringens Outgrowth during Cooling of Deli-Style Turkey Breast. Journal of Food Protection. 78(8): 1527-1535.). Results from this study provided the bases for allowing the slower cooling parameters of USDA, FSIS Appendix B (reserved for products containing purified to nitrite) to now be used for those products containing natural sources of curing ingredients (http://askfsis.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/1990/kw/celery%20powder and http://askfsis.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/1775/kw/celery%20powder).
These exciting changes are small but critically positive steps in allowing meat and poultry processors the ability to manufacture processed meat and poultry products, not containing purified curing ingredients with alternative versions, without affecting or compromising the quality and safety of those products.
Jeff Sindelar, Ph.D.
Associate Professor & Extension Meat Specialist
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Meat Science & Muscle Biology Laboratory
1805 Linden Drive
Madison, WI 53590