In addition to being used to treat disease in livestock animals, antibiotics are added to the food or water of animals to help them gain weight faster or more efficiently while consuming less food. (1) Many of these same antibiotics are used to treat human illnesses, so there is concern that with widespread use, bacteria will become resistant and antibiotics will be less effective in humans. As a result, the FDA is working with meat producers and veterinary drug manufacturers on a program to reduce the amount of antibiotics used in raising livestock. (2)
If you prefer to enjoy pork from animals raised without antibiotics, look for “no antibiotics added” or “raised without the use of antibiotics” on the label. These statements indicate that the producer is able to demonstrate to the USDA that the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics.
When antibiotics are necessary to prevent or treat disease, the animals are still given the medications they need to keep them in good health. In order to meet the USDA labeling regulations, these livestock are kept from the market until all traces of the antibiotics have passed from the animal. (3) Some producers, such as Prairie Grove Farms, go a step further in their commitment and guarantee their animals have never been given antibiotics. (4)
Added nitrates are chemically produced compounds used in the curing of meats to give deli ham, hot dogs and bacon their bright pink color. Nitrates also act as a preservative to help prevent bacterial growth – meaning cured and processed meat with these added chemicals will last much longer than your typical raw cuts.
But why are these nitrates a concern? Some research has found that cured meats may be implicated in causing certain types of cancer. (5) In fact, the World Health Organization recently declared processed meats a known carcinogen. (6)
In an effort to keep the quality and flavor of cured meats intact without the added chemicals, many meat producers are turning to more natural sources of nitrates such as celery powder or celery juice. But are these natural nitrates safer than chemically produced nitrates? There’s not an easy answer, since it’s not known whether the nitrates in cured meats or some other compound they contain increases cancer risk. (7)
If you’re concerned about chemically-produced nitrates in pork, look for products labeled “uncured” or “no nitrates or nitrites added.” These products either contain nitrates added from a natural source (like celery powder) or they’re preserved the old fashioned way using high amounts of salt and drying according to USDA regulations. (8)
On most food products regulated by the FDA, the term “natural” is not well defined, and it may be surprising to see this label on a single ingredient food like pork. However, meat is regulated by the USDA and the term “natural” on a pork label means the meat has no artificial ingredients or colors and was processed in a way that does not fundamentally alter the product. For fresh pork products, this label can seem pointless since they don’t contain added ingredients and are processed only by being cut into small portions for sale. However, the “natural” label may be more meaningful on pork products with added ingredients like flavored sausage, prepared shredded pork and pre-seasoned cuts. If the label says “natural,” it must also include what that specifically means, such as “no artificial ingredients” or “minimally processed.”