Nitrite In The Hot Dogs Of My Youth
    By Enrico Uva | January 23rd 2011 09:47 AM | 1 comment | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    I hope that Health and Welfare Canada guidelines for certain additives are a bit more stringent than they have to be to help compensate for possible loose play on the part of industries. When I was a student I analyzed fat content, dextrose and nitrite levels in hot dogs for a well known company. I'm not naming the company because for all I know they may have mended their ways.

    Nor am I suggesting that the whole industry was or is guilty of the things that I witnessed. Nitrite (NO2-) is added in small quantities to preserve and colour many cold cuts and hotdogs. At the time, acceptable limits for NO2- ranged for 100 to 150ppm, depending on the product. But levels frequently surpassed the guidelines by 25 to 50%. At first I questioned my own analyses, but they were confirmed by my supervisor. The head of the lab said he would look into it at the production end, but weeks later the problem persisted. In general we were instructed not to carry out the analyses in duplicate, unless an anomalous result surfaced.

    We had learned in the statistical math section of analytical chemistry that tests of the sort should be carried out in triplicate. One day an inspector from Health and Welfare Canada came into the lab, and I told him about the problem. He told me he was just a summer replacement with only a background in CEGEP( a junior college) health sciences, and so that he could not really understand what I was saying. Later that summer, I was switched to the night shift, and I was alone in the lab. Digging into records from the previous two years, I found that other technicians had also been routinely finding high levels of nitrite(surpassing guidelines) in two specific products.

    Nitrite, I realize, is an important preservative, and although it has been associated with cancer in rats, the possibility of a similar occurrence in humans is only slightly elevated because of the concurrent addition of erythorbate and/or ascorbic acid. But I also saw the pale colour of the hot dog mixture prior to nitrite addition, and it would not have been so pale if the ingredients weren't such a mishmash of intestines and other meat "scraps".

    Most of the public was unaware that what they were really tasting in hot dogs were the strong spices and sugars. I just sent this story to a well-known columnist in Canada who fights chemophobia. He is sometimes too zealous in his defence of industry and government. I don't question his sincerity, and there is no excuse for personal attacks he receives from people who cannot distinguish science from irrational notions or conspiracy theories, but I wish he would sometimes also write about the abuse of science.

    Hopefully what I experienced was only an anomaly, but it happened...I don't want to take too much of your time, but maybe on another occasion, I can tell you about my adventures in the labs of a well-known metal refinery.


    The writer I referred to wrote back: "Wherever humans are involved, there is always the chance for abuse. I certainly have written before about abuses in the pharmaceutical industry and have taken Health Canada to task over the Office of Natural Health Products and its giving homeopathic products an approval number. As far as additives go, there is a huge safety margin built in. They are based on the NOAEL and to arrive at an ADI (acceptable daily intake) there usually is a 100 fold factor built in. Of course it is true that by cutting down on foods that contain nitrites, we improve our diets."