Optimizing sausage processing for food safety: A paradox


The article below was originally written for Meatingplace.com by my friend and colleague Dr. Dana Hanson of North Carolina State University.  Dana writes about the history of curing meat products and the function of nitrite in sausages.

NOTE: Another article worth reading is this one by Ruhlman, targeted toward charcuterie enthusiasts, about curing sausages.  It’s pretty good and the comments might help clear up some common questions about home curing.


Optimizing sausage processing for food safety: A paradox

By Dana J Hanson, Ph.D. on 1/31/2011
Somehow the words “curing” or “cured” have become bad words in the vocabulary of the consuming public. The idea that a meat processor would formulate a product using something unnatural or artificial is now viewed as unacceptable. Consumers’ concern comes from many angles, however, what is missing from most criticism is a full understanding of the practical reasons for this method of food preservation. 

It is important that the meat processing industry communicates the potential food safety and quality benefits that can be achieved by the prudent addition of functional ingredients.



History offers many lessons regarding food preservation. In the 10th century, Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium (modern Greece) prohibited the manufacturing of blood sausage after an outbreak of food poisoning. The medical term allantiasisrefers to poisoning due to the ingestion of sausages, usually the result of consuming meat products containing the toxins of Clostridium botulinum. It is also interesting to note that the Latin word botulus translates to the word “sausage.” 

The concern for safety of sausage products is certainly not new. Just as we look for ways to produce a wholesome product today, people of antiquity discovered that sodium or potassium nitrate prevented outbreaks of sausage poisoning.


Function of nitrite

Traditionally, fully cooked, cured meats have long been made with the inclusion of sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate. Nitrite, and the combination of salt (sodium chloride), are the functional ingredients that provide the typical pink color, flavor and antioxidant properties of cured meat products. Another major benefit of this ingredient is the increased level of safety it provides cured meats that are vacuum-packaged and refrigerated. 

Sodium nitrite is an antimicrobial agent that has a strong inhibitory effect on anaerobic bacteria, namely Clostridium botulinum. The mechanism as to how nitrite works on a bacteria cell is not totally understood, but a likely explanation involves the reduction of nitrite to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is formed when cure accelerators (i.e. sodium erythorbate) are used or when natural bacterial reduction occurs during pre-blending. This compound is thought to disrupt numerous enzymatic systems within the bacterial cell, consequently restricting growth and preventing spores from germinating.



“Uncured” products or, better stated, products formulated without the inclusion of sodium nitrite salt, have gained popularity in the market due to the consumer’s negative perception of this ingredient. In order to answer this demand, segments of the meat processing industry have looked for alternative curing methods. 

For example, it is well established that similar “uncured” products can be made with nitrite coming from a natural vegetable source. This approach allows the processor the benefit of making a product with traditional pink color, similar flavor profile and potentially similar safety benefits of a product formulated with sodium nitrite salt. All of this is accomplished without having to include the phrase “sodium nitrite” on the ingredient statement. (emphasis added)

However, reducing the level of nitrite in cured products increases the potential risk of foodborne illness caused by Clostridium botulinum. Producing “uncured” products with natural sources introduces an unknown variable to the processor. In some cases residual nitrite levels are found to be too low to have an inhibitory effect and in other cases the levels may be much higher than the regulatory limits set by the government.



Consumers continue to send market signals that indicate a preference for minimally processed, natural and organic, and uncured meat products. In fact, some consumers are willing to pay high premiums for these foods as compared to conventional products. However, the public searching for uncured sausages or products that do not include sodium nitrite remain largely unaware that nitrite from vegetable sources is chemically identical to the nitrite from sodium or potassium salts that they are trying to avoid. 

The science suggests that using antimicrobial ingredients such as sodium nitrite reduces the risk of illness due to an outgrowth of Clostridium botulinum. In other words, it makes the sausages safer to eat. It is well established that the food safety benefits far outweigh the potential negative impact that nitrite may have on public health.

The question is, are we doing the right thing ethically when we even offer an “uncured” product, given the additional food safety risks? By offering an “uncured” alternative, are we not, in essence, agreeing that it is a better option, compared to traditionally cured product?

With the full understanding that satisfying stockholder demands and maintaining a profitable enterprise are the primary concerns of business, it nevertheless makes me wonder: Do we become own worst enemy when we bend to meet the latest consumer trend?

We scratch our heads wondering why the consumer does not understand what we do. Is it any wonder, when it is also common practice to play games with labeling requirements with clever word-smithing or ingredient use?

When asked, ‘What is the No. 1 concern facing the meat industry,’ food safety is often first phrase that comes out of our collective mouths. Could the meat industry do a better job of educating the public exactly how and why we do what we do?

Is generation of profit the only reason we do exist as an industry?

Food for thought … .




One thought on “Optimizing sausage processing for food safety: A paradox

  1. Speaking of nitrate, every consumer should be aware of these data:

    62 % of ingested nitrate originates from vegetables
    26 % originates from drinking water
    4 % originates from cereals
    4 % originates from fruits
    3 % from meat products
    1 % originates from milk and dairy products

    Nitrate ingested by these foods are resorbed in small intestine and secreted through saliva in the oral cavity. Here comes the bacterial reduction to nitrite. That way, eating cured meat or not, we enter indirectly nitrite in our body anyway.

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