Cafe Society

An open letter to Mark DeNittis: Why is Il Mondo Vecchio closing?

Page 4 of 5

1) Nitrates

Having some experience with curing and the science behind it, I have been compelled to research the subject even further since the closing of Il Mondo Vecchio was announced. I have had discussions with people in the area who love your products and fear the vilified nitrates even without appearing to understand why they fear them. While I do not always agree with the methodology and means of the USDA, I understand that many Americans are mistrusting of cured meat and so the USDA has taken measures to protect the masses. The recent interest in pork and cured products is fantastic, and we all hope to educate potential consumers about the benefits of local food, small-scale production, and artisan traditions. The USDA is tasked with protecting consumers-- maybe not the way we would always like, but that is their job nonetheless. We have the choice to work with them, or not at all.

"Il Mondo Vecchio essentially hit an impasse. They could either change their methods to a process that has been validated by the USDA such as fermenting (cooking the product) or adding nitrites, nitrates, acids or copious amounts of salt, all resulting in what IMV believes to be an inferior product or stop production."

That said, I don't know of a more hotly-debated topic within the world of salumi-making and eating than the use of nitrates in cured meat. The USDA's requirement for nitrates seems to be a common point of contention amongst many salumi makers when it comes to maintaining integrity of process. (Was this the case for your business?) Me, I'm unsure as to why there is such resistance to a naturally occurring compound.

Nitrates have been around for hundreds of years and are naturally-existing within salt mines, within greens such as celery, spinach and beetroots and even within your saliva. Studies have also begun to emerge that are showing nitrates as an antioxidant and potentially beneficial.

The other thing you fail to mention in any of these articles is that the amount set by the USDA as a maximum is still nominal. If using Instacure 2, it's 6.25 % sodium nitrite and 1% sodium nitrate, resulting in 7.25% total nitrates per the total weight of Instacure added. The USDA has a maximum of 625 parts per million (ppm) nitrates, which at the end of the day is .0625% of total weight of meat product.

1lb of raw meat/fat (453 grams) would be allowed a maximum of .0625% nitrates (625ppm). Before drying, you would have a level of .283 grams of nitrates. During drying, this converts almost entirely to nitric oxide leaving you with, at most, .002 grams of nitrate.

A single serving of greens with naturally-occurring nitrates have significantly higher levels than that in a single serving. Nitrates at that volume, in my experience, do help to retain color, but impart little to no flavor, especially in heavily seasoned products such as your own.

There have been no studies since 1972 that have proven any risk with regards to nitrates, and even that study refers to ingesting the amount of two tablespoons of straight nitrates. For what it's worth, you can't even easily purchase straight nitrates, as both cure types (#1 and #2) are composed of 6.25% nitrites and a combination of 6.25% nitrites and 1% nitrates respectively. The rest of the makeup of the cures is salt.

A 155lb man would need to consume approximately 14lbs of raw product intended to be dry-cured in one sitting. Given the reduction of nitrates to nitric oxide during the drying process, he would then need to eat a whopping 35 - 45 lbs of the same finished product to reach even potential "lethal" dose of nitrates. And tell me, who could eat even one pound of cured meat in a single sitting? It's virtually impossible to ingest anywhere near a harmful amount of nitrates, let alone a lethal dose.

In short, if you had a plate of 1/4lb of salumi, with a side of potatoes and spinach, there would be more nitrates in the spinach and potatoes than the entire serving of salumi.

I'm sure we can agree that this is purely ground-meat salumi where nitrates are absolutely critical. Given that whole muscles do not share the same air pocket risk, I see no issue with not using nitrates there, however, it still does not result in a negative affect on the consumer.

The other glaring omission in the articles is the fact that many producers use converted celery or cherry juice powder in their uncured products. While I am not sure whether or not you use plant based nitrates, the use of these products does in fact add nitrates into the meat and therefore trace amounts of nitrates are found within the finished product as well. There are several producers in this country providing a high quality product through the use converted celery juice, with the end result still being the addition of nitrates

This is misleading or at the very least confusing to consumers who are trying to understand the nature of their purchases and the differences between cured and uncured meats. It should be noted that cherry juice powder is a nitrate-reductant when combined with celery juice powder. It does not represent a substitute for nitrates, but is used purely for the maintenance of meat color.

To my knowledge, during the process of creating a HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) plan, all aspects of product creation and sanitary maintenance must be outlined in detail. From the regulations I see, you have two choices:

Use an approved nitrates source Provide adequate proof that your methods are in fact sound

You maintain that no synthetic nitrates are added, but do you use alternative source of nitrates? If you do, in fact, use converted celery juice powder, why is that not mentioned in any of your many interviews? Is it that you do not trust in the soundness of your production methods? Have you spent so much time stumping against the use of nitrates that you are unwilling to level with consumers about the specific ingredients their salumi actually contains? This seems to be the single-most confusing piece of the cured meats puzzle for consumers, and it's no wonder. Nor is it the fault of any single person. There is a vast and wonderful opportunity at hand for education about curing to the general public. People want to learn more about this fascinating and ancient tradition of preservation. That can only be achieved through transparency of practice

" Our name literally means 'Old World," DeNittis told me by phone. And how did they cure meat back in the old world? With a discrete, short list of ingredients: "Sea salt, meat, quality spices, and time."

You mention often the lack of nitrates in "Old World Methods" not just on your website and within emails and articles. Is there historic evidence that proves this as fact? In Europe, many large-scale hundred year old makers use saltpeter (potassium nitrate - KNO3) Saltpeter has been banned by the USDA for proven health effects, such as impotence. Although this has been up for some debate recently, nothing conclusive has been published to my knowledge. Saltpeter remains in use in Europe, but is banned in the U.S.

Many "Old World" methods used far less salt then what science has shown to be necessary (2% minimum), and others use far more. Hell, in many "Old Word Methods", they don't even measure most ingredients and go by taste and appearance rather than weight. My Nonna used to eat raw pork to check flavor, something no one in modern day salumi making would dare.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson