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The Number of Approved Meat Additives Expanded by the FDA -- and None of the Additives Need to be on the Label

There are over 3,000 substances currently added to foods, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While some of these are common household items you likely use regularly (salt, baking soda, sugar, etc.) others are complex chemicals you've likely never heard of.

controversial meat-packing technique

One controversial meat-packing technique is known as "modified atmosphere packaging." In this process, oxygen in the product's package is replaced with carbon monooxide and other gases to keep the meat red and "fresh-looking." Although the carbon monoxide does not pose a health threat in this case, opponents say the technique allows stores to sell meat after it's no longer fresh, and could mislead consumers to purchase and eat spoiled meat.

Just what is a food additive? According to the FDA, it's "any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result -- directly or indirectly -- in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food."

They're used in processing, packaging, transporting, and producing foods, and may enhance flavor or texture, prevent spoilage or discoloration, and extend shelf-life, along with a long laundry-list of other uses.

New Meat Additives Approved, but You Won't See Them on Labels

The FDA has recently approved a number of new substances for use as processing aids directly on meat and poultry products. Processing aids, according to the FDA, "are substances that are required during the manufacture or processing of a food and that are ordinarily removed from the final food."

Because these additives are intended to be removed from the final food (although even the FDA says that residuals may carry over to the final food), they are classified ad "indirect food additives." This means that they do not need to be listed on food labels. Even some direct food additives, which are added directly to a food, are only listed on labels under terms like "natural flavor," "artificial flavor," or "caking agents," making it very difficult for consumers to ascertain what they're really eating.

Among the newest meat additives approved by the FDA are the following:

  • A blend of citric acid and sorbic acid for package "soaker pads:" The mix is intended to reduce the microbial load of purge trapped inside soaker pads in packages of meat and poultry.

  • Citric acid: Approved as a microbial agent on separated beef heads and offal.

  • Lauramide arginine ethyl ester: Approved as an antimicrobial agent for use on ready-to-eat ground meat products, such as sausages.

  • Trisodium phosphate: Approved as a component of phosphate blends, used to decrease the amount of cooked out juices in meat products.

Debate Surrounding Food Additives

food additives

Various chemicals are added to meats to extend shelf-life, improve flavor and texture, and prevent rancidity.

While the FDA maintains that food additives are safe, there is some controversy as to their potential health effects. There have been, for instance, food additives that were once deemed safe, which were later found to be carcinogenic and, subsequently, were withdrawn from the market. Examples of such additives include the color additive Violet No. 1 (once used to stamp USDA inspection grades on beef), and a flavoring called Safrole that was once used in root beer.

It's because of this potential for toxicity that additives are never given permanent approval. Instead, the FDA and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service monitor approved food additives based on recent findings and determine if approvals need to be modified or withdrawn.

Other Common Meat Additives

There are many approved additives added to the meat and poultry products in your supermarket. Following is a list of the most common (and those that are considered risky by some experts have been starred):

  • *BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole): These substances help to retard rancidity in fats, sausages, and dried meats, as well as help to protect some of the natural nutrients in foods, such as vitamin A. (*These additives have been found by some studies to cause cancer in rats.)

  • Bromelin: An enzyme derived from pineapple that is used to soften meat and poultry tissue (a meat tenderizer).

  • *Carrageenan: Made from seaweed, this additive is used as a binder to thicken or improve foods' textures. (*Low-levels of formaldehyde are present in this additive, although the European Food Standards Authority has deemed it does not pose a threat to human health.)

  • *Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): Used as a flavor enhancer. (*MSG has been linked to numerous side effects, including sudden cardiac death. MSG must be listed as "monosodium glutamate" on meat and poultry labels.)

  • Citric Acid: Added to help protect flavor along with the color of meats during storage.

  • *Propyl Gallate: Used to prevent rancidity in rendered fats and pork sausage. It's often used with BHA and BHT. (*This preservative may cause cancer.)

  • Papain: An enzyme made from the papaya tree used as a meat tenderizer.

  • Phosphates: Used to enhance moisture retention and protect flavor in meat and poultry products.

  • *Sodium Nitrite/Nitrate: A preservative and color fixative used in cured meats and poultry products such as bologna, hot dogs and bacon. (*These additives can lead to the formation of cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines.)

Recommended Reading

12 Dangerous Food Additives: The Dirty Dozen Food Additives You Really Need to be Aware Of

Food Nutrition Labels: Six Catches You Need to Know

Sources January 24, 2007 January 25, 2007

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service

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