17 April, 2007

Salt Peter and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and why the USDA are bad little monkeys

Scientists link Hot Dogs and Bacon to Lung Disease

I just started reading "SALT: A World History", so its somewhat of a coincidence that I came across the article above linking nitrate ingestion (specifically sodium nitrate used to cure bacon, hams and sausages) to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Ironically, bacon, ham and other similar products not treated with nitrates (sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, specifically) are deemed by the USDA as "uncured" and can be labeled and sold as such; and in fact the sole difference between a cured and uncured bacon is this minor, technical distinction.

Some of the curing methods the USDA recognizes are listed here: Ham and Food Safety

Curiously, while some nitrates occur in impure sea salts (mineral nitrates) and from vegetable sources, USDA curing almost certainly requires the addition of synthetic nitrates that implies an industrial food scale. To wit, artisinal "cured" products may be labeled as uncured by the USDA because they fall below the government's standards for synthetic preservatives (nitrates also give hams and bacon their eerily bright rose/pink color).

Mislabeled thus, a consumer may mistake an in-fact superior product for one that was inferior, or at least, less safe. But are "uncured" less safe? Probably not, and according to the article above, may in fact me more safe if persistently linked to COPD.

Regulations such as the curing and labeling rules set forth by the USDA may have trace origins in consumer advocacy, but I personally have suspicions that the regulations may favor industrial agri-business, and that the exact wording of this and similar regulations may well have been dictated verbatim to Congress by a ConAgra or ADM lawyer.

But more directly, many curing, butchering and processing regulations meant to protect consumers in fact stymie the efforts of small producers (who, for instance, are required to use a USDA licensed meat processor for certain classes of animal in order to be legally sold; this, for instance, is a particularly Orwellian obstacle to the wider availability of grass finished beeves). I think these rules need to be relaxed for small producers. As for ConAgra, ADM or Cargill, litigation and self regulation has proven to be at least more effective than government oversight, however the lack of funding for USDA inspectors to enforce rules on the books is a direct result of lobby efforts within the industry. It takes an occasional E.coli O157:H7 outbreak to keep them honest.

..outbreaks that are made possible and even probable in the crowded, bizarre world of industrialized feed lots and rendering plants, the same required by the USDA to process all our food.

So the moral of the story is, if you can, eat uncured pork products. It won't kill you, and it might save your life!