Additives in Meat and Poultry
People have been using food additives for
thousands of years. Today about 2,800 substances are used as food
additives. Corn syrup, salt and sugar are by far the most widely,
nontoxic, additives to food in this country.
History of Food Additives
In prehistoric times, cavemen may have smoked meats to make them taste
better. In coastal regions, early man probably soaked foods, including meat
and poultry, in seawater for better flavor and for preservation. The spice
trade between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe flourished because the
public demanded the flavors that spices added to foods. Early explorers went
in search of salt and spices, and wealthy Romans were kidnaped for ransom of
salt and spices. Our ancestors discovered that large amounts of sugar helped
What is a Food Additive?
"Food additive" is defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as any
substance used to provide a technical effect in foods. The use of food
additives has become more prominent in recent years, due to the increased
production of prepared, processed and convenience foods. Additives
are used for flavor and appeal, food preparation and processing, freshness,
and safety. At the same time, consumers and scientists have raised questions
about the necessity and safety of these substances.
Who Monitors the Safety of Food Additives?
Before any substance can be added to food, its safety must be assessed in a
stringent approval process. The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shares responsibility with FDA for the
safety of food additives used in meat, poultry, and egg products. All
additives are initially evaluated for safety by FDA.
When an additive is proposed for use in a meat, poultry, or egg product, its
safety, technical function, and conditions of use must also be evaluated by
Labeling and Consumer Protection Staff of
FSIS, as provided in the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products
Inspection Act, the Egg Products Inspection Act, and related regulations.
Several years ago, permission was sought to use ascorbic acid in meat
salads. Although ascorbic acid was an approved food additive, permission for
use in meat salad was denied because such usage could mask spoilage caused
by organisms that cause food borne illness.
Additives are never given permanent approval. FDA and FSIS continually
review the safety of approved additives, based on the best scientific
knowledge, to determine if approvals should be modified or withdrawn.
Why Are Food Additives Regulated?
During the early part of the first century in America, people lived off the
land. They grew their own foods or bought them from someone they knew and
trusted. There was no need for food safety laws. As the country grew and
became more industrialized, the number of people who produced their own
foods decreased drastically. Therefore, the nation depended on the newly
emerging food industry to produce and distribute its food. Unfortunately,
during the 1850's, there was much dishonesty concerning adding substances to
The first efforts to pass laws to govern foods were state laws (1850 and
beyond). These laws were difficult to enforce. The first major Federal law
governing food was the 1906 Federal Food and Drug Act. It set the framework
for the regulation of foods and stated that it was illegal to sell
misbranded or adulterated foods and drugs in interstate commerce. It listed
chemicals that were illegal to add to foods, such as borax or formaldehyde.
The law was weak in that there was no method of enforcement and no
In 1938, the Federal Food and Drug Act was revised to account for changes in
medical science and food technology, and was renamed the Federal Food, Drug,
and Cosmetic Act. Among the many provisions of the law was a requirement for
truthful labeling of additives.
When Did Food Additives Regulations Begin?
The 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic
Act provided for the first specific regulations of food additives. Approval
of new food additives was required before they could be marketed, and the
responsibility for proving their safety was placed on the manufacturer.
To use or market a substance to be used as a food additive, a company must
first file a petition with the FDA outlining the tests that prove the
substance to be safe under the proposed conditions of use. If it is approved
as safe under the proposed conditions of use, FDA prescribes in its
regulations, the types of foods it may be used in, and how it may be used.
Are Any Additives Exempt from the Approval Process?
The Food Additives Amendment exempted two groups of food additives from
FDA's testing and approval process. One is the list of substances known as
"generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). This group includes a variety of
substances, from commonly used flavorings and spices to phosphates and
carrageenan. These substances are considered harmless under prescribed
conditions of use. Past extensive use of these substances has produced no
known harmful effects. The other group of additives known as "substances
with prior sanction" was approved by USDA and FDA for use in foods prior to
the passage of the 1958 Food Additives Amendment. Examples of these types of
substances include potassium nitrite and sodium nitrite. Additives can be
removed from the lists if tests indicate the substances are not safe for
When Were Color Additives Addressed?
The 1960 Color Additives Amendment brought all colors, natural and
synthetic, under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Color additives may not
be used to deceive consumers or to conceal blemishes or inferiorities in
food products. Colors used in foods, drugs, and cosmetics must be approved
by the FDA before they can be marketed.
The Food Additives Amendment and the Color Additives Amendments include the
Delaney Clause, which prohibits the approval of an additive "if it is found
to induce cancer when ingested by" people or animals, or "if it is found,
after tests which are appropriate for the evaluation of the safety of food
additives, to induce cancer in" people or animals. Any substance found to
cause cancer is regulated under the general safety provisions of these laws,
as well as by the Delaney Clause.
What are Labeling Requirements for
The statutes and regulations to enforce the statutes require certain
information on labels of meat and poultry products so consumers will have
complete information about a product. In all cases, ingredients must be
listed on the product label, in the ingredients statement in order by
weight, from the greatest amount to the least.
Substances such as spices and spice extractives may be declared as "natural
flavors," "flavors," or "natural flavoring" on meat and poultry labels
without naming each one. This is because they are used primarily for their
flavor contribution and not their nutritional contribution.
Substances such as dried meat, poultry stock, meat extracts, or hydrolyzed
protein must be listed on the label by their common or usual name because
their primary purpose is not flavor. They may be used as flavor enhancers,
binders, or emulsifiers. They must be labeled using the species of origin of
the additive, for example, dried beef, chicken stock, pork extract, or
hydrolyzed wheat protein.
Color additives must be declared by their common or usual names on labels,
e.g., FD&C Yellow 5, or annatto extract, not collectively as colorings.
These labeling requirements help consumers make choices about the foods they
Glossary of Commonly
Used Meat and Poultry Additives and Terms
ANTIOXIDANT - substances added to foods to prevent
the oxygen present in the air from causing undesirable changes in flavor or
color. BHA, BHT, and tocopherols are examples of antioxidants.
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole),
TOCOPHEROLS (VITAMIN E) - antioxidants that help maintain the
appeal and wholesome qualities of food by retarding rancidity in fats,
sausages, and dried meats, as well as helping to protect some of the natural
nutrients in foods, such as vitamin A.
BINDER - a substance that may be added to foods to
thicken or improve texture.
BROMELIN - an enzyme that can dissolve or degrade
the proteins collagen and elastin to soften meat and poultry tissue. It is
derived from pineapple fruit and leaves, and is used as a meat tenderizer.
CARRAGEENAN - seaweed is the source of this
additive. It may be used in products as binder.
CITRIC ACID - widely distributed in nature in both
plants and animals. It can be used as an additive to protect the fresh color
of meat cuts during storage. Citric acid also helps protect flavor and
increases the effectiveness of antioxidants.
CORN SYRUP - sugar that is derived from the
hydrolysis of corn starch. Uses include flavoring agent and sweetener in
meat and poultry products.
EMULSIFIER - substance added to products, such as
meat spreads, to prevent separation of product components to ensure
consistency. Examples of these types of additives include lecithin, and
mono- and di-glycerides.
FICIN - enzyme derived from fig trees that is used
as a meat tenderizer.
GELATIN - thickener from collagen which is derived
from the skin, tendons, ligaments, or bones of livestock. It may be used in
canned hams or jellied meat products.
HUMECTANT - substance added to foods to help retain
moisture and soft texture. An example is glycerine, which may be used in
dried meat snacks.
HYDROLYZED (SOURCE) PROTEIN - flavor enhancers that
can be used in meat and poultry products. They are made from protein
obtained from a plant source such as soy or wheat, or from an animal source,
such as milk. The source used must be identified on the label.
MODIFIED FOOD STARCH - starch that has been
chemically altered to improve its thickening properties. Before the starch
is modified, it is separated from the protein through isolation techniques;
therefore, the source of the starch used is not required on the label.
MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE (MSG) - MSG is a flavor
enhancer. It comes from a common amino acid, glutamic acid, and must be
declared as monosodium glutamate on meat and poultry labels.
PAPAIN - an enzyme that can dissolve or degrade the
proteins collagen and elastin to soften meat and poultry tissue. It is
derived from the tropical papaya tree and is used as a meat tenderizer.
PHOSPHATES - the two beneficial effects of
phosphates in meat and poultry products are moisture retention and flavor
protection. An example is the use of phosphates in the curing of ham where
approved additives are sodium or potassium salts of tripolyphosphate,
hexametaphosphate, acid pyrophosphate, or orthophosphates, declared as
"phosphates" on labels.
PROPYL GALLATE - used as an antioxidant to prevent
rancidity in products such as rendered fats or pork sausage. It can be used
in combination with antioxidants such as BHA and BHT.
RANCID/RANCIDITY - oxidation/breakdown of fat that
occurs naturally causing undesirable smell and taste. BHA/BHT and
tocopherols are used to keep fats from becoming rancid.
SODIUM CASEINATE - used as a binder in products such
as frankfurters and stews.
SODIUM ERYTHORBATE - is the sodium salt of
erythorbic acid, a highly refined food-grade chemical closely related to
vitamin C, synthesized from sugar, and used as a color fixative in preparing
cured meats. (Note: Erythorbate is NOT earthworms.
Perhaps the spelling or pronunciation has contributed to this misconception
Hotline receives many calls related to this
SODIUM NITRITE - used alone or in conjunction with
sodium nitrate as a color fixative in cured meat and poultry products
(bologna, hot dogs, bacon). Helps prevent growth of Clostridium
botulinum, which can cause botulism in humans.
SUGAR (SUCROSE) - used as sweetener in an endless
list of food products.
TEXTURIZERS/STABILIZERS/THICKENERS - used in foods
to help maintain uniform texture or consistency. These are substances that
are commonly called binders. Examples are gelatin and carrageenan.
WHEY, DRIED - the dried form of a component of milk
that remains after cheese making. Can be used as a binder or extender in
various meat products, such as sausage and stews.