Additives in Meat and Poultry Products
People have been using food additives for thousands of years. Today about 2,800 substances are
used as food additives. Salt, sugar, and corn syrup are by far the most widely used additives
in 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 preserve fruits.
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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.
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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 (FSIS) 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 the 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. Although FDA has overriding authority
regarding additive safety, FSIS may apply even stricter standards that take into account the
unique characteristics of meat, poultry, and egg products. Several years ago, for instance,
permission was sought to use sorbic acid in meat salads. Although sorbic 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 foodborne 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.
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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 foods.
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 punishment.
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.
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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
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.
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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 human consumption.
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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.
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What are Labeling Requirements for Additives?
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
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 eat.
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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
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
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 because the Hotline
receives many calls related to this concern.)
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.
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Last Modified: November 2008