The FDA has reversed a previous ruling that three chemicals used as preservatives are unsafe. Based on research provided by Kraft Foods, the FDA has declared safe for human consumption sodium benzoate, sodium propionate, and benzoic acid. At least, that is the story circulating the internet. As usual in situations like these, the full truth is a bit more complex.
Regulation of food additives is done by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) branch of the Food & Drug Administration. In March, the FSIS announced that based on evidence provided by Kraft Foods and Kremin Foods, a biotech firm, it was amending regulations concerning the use of the three benzene derivatives as a anti-microbial agent in meats. According to FSIS:
Sodium benzoate, sodium propionate and benzoic acid, under the conditions proposed in the petitions, are both safe and suitable for use as antimicrobial agents in certain RTE (Ready-to-Eat) meat and poultry products.
Anyone who has looked at a can of soda recently can tell that sodium benzoate was never actually banned from human consumption. While there have been some concerns about a possible link to hyperactivity disorders from sodium benzoate (maybe it was all the sugar, instead?), there have been no definitive links to health disorders.
Instead, the FDA had been concerned that the chemicals were being used to mask damaged and other unsafe cuts of meat.
Green bloggers reaction
That seems to be getting the goat of a lot of writers for sites like Natural News. They claim that masking damaged and inferior cuts of meat is exactly what Kraft wants to be doing. Kraft’s stated reason for petitioning the FDA on the issue was to prevent Listeria outbreaks. Natural News does make a valid point that tainted meat would normally not be usable.
But their claim isn’t actually true. While tainted meat would be unusable if the taint couldn’t be safely destroyed, that isn’t how the FDA defines damaged or inferior. Damaged meat is caused by improper butchering of the animal. If the animal is still bleeding when a cut is made, blood will flow into the flesh, causing it to bruise. THAT is a damaged cut of meat. Meanwhile, inferior meat is a matter of USDA grading. Utility grade meats are generally used only in ground and processed meat products instead of whole cuts.
With large amounts of preservatives, it is possible to mask the taste and include in products that ordinarily be wasted. But that is against the law. And so, the FDA has prohibited the use of benzoates in meat to keep watch on the practice. What Kraft is claiming is that limited amounts can be used an an anti-microbial agent but aren’t capable of masking damaged or inferior meat.
While I’m generally leery of claims sponsored by a company with a vested interest, this really isn’t an issue of food safety. This is an issue of food quality. Claiming that a certain level of a preservative doesn’t keep consumers from figuring out that a utility grade cut of meat isn’t actually a commercial grade seems pretty straight-forward.