San Francisco Chronicle – Saving your bacon

Saving your bacon

By Ken Albala

October 28, 2015 Updated: October 29, 2015 9:18am

Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Processed meats, including hotdogs and bacon, were called out in a report released Monday by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. The agency said eating processed meat can lead to colorectal cancer in humans. The cancer risk associated with meat remains small but rises with the amount consumed.

The recent World Health Organization declaration that cured meats could cause cancer has left many of us in the world of gastronomy reeling. My personal concern arises not so much from the risk — as an amateur sausage-maker, I’m not about to give up meat nor, I suspect, are most of my fellow devotees of all things porcine. What I worry about is yet another round of food fear-mongering that does more harm than good.

As the artisanal food movement has blossomed, particularly here in the Bay Area, a burgeoning group of craftspeople has been working to revive the ancient traditions of charcuterie, those cold, cooked meat delicacies such as sausage and prosciutto. These arts have been largely lost this past century precisely due to our current safety standards. Created for industrial scale processing, with protocols designed so meats could be shipped farther and have a longer shelf life (priorities many of us would question), these regulations have shut down many manufacturers of traditional salami, hams and other cured pork products. In contrast, local artisanal meats have been safely consumed for millennia in Europe, often cured with nothing more than salt and using meat from well-raised animals. But things are different here.

In the 19th century, when super-refined salt came into use, industrial-scale producers of cured meats were required to use potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and then later (since the ’50s) sodium nitrate and nitrite. These chemicals prevent botulism (a word which, incidentally, comes from the Latin word for sausage, “botulus”). They also give bacon, ham, salami, corned beef and hot dogs that pink color and distinctive flavor and texture.

The fact that nitrates are linked to cancer is not news. In the 1970s, at the same time saccharine was vilified, a few studies showed a correlation between nitrates and cancer in rats. To assuage consumer concern, manufacturers about a decade ago started using celery powder (a potent source of nitrates) instead. An odd legal loophole allowed them to label products processed with celery powder as “uncured” and organic — even though that’s not true at all. By definition, bacon is cured: “uncured” bacon is not bacon. Ironically, celery powder yields less predictable results than refined nitrates. I know this from testing it systematically in my own cured pork; sometimes the product simply goes bad.

The worrisome part of the WHO declaration is that it may spark another round of food regulations designed for mass industrial producers that will stunt the artisanal food movement. Meanwhile, it may send highly health-conscious consumers (who still love meat) to purchase deceptively named “uncured products.” A few worried souls may go so far as to swear off cured meats altogether.

To be sure, even a sausage enthusiast like myself can see the sense in moderation around cured meats. Of course, if you’re eating vast quantities of bacon every day, my guess is that you probably do have more health problems and do run a marginally greater risk of cancer. But that may have to do with overall lifestyle. For me, all this only raises the real question lurking at the bottom of the controversy.

Is a life without bacon worth living?

Ken Albala, a professor of history, is the director of food studies at the University of the Pacific, San Francisco. He has written or edited 23 books on food.