A story in the March 23 issue of Parade magazine left the impression that finally there had been a resolution to the safety questions that have dogged bacon's path for the last seven to 10 years.
The article, by Sylvia Schur, the magazine's food editor, began: "Yes, you can bring home the bacon again -- safely, Carol Tucker Foreman, the tough, consumer-minded assistant secretary of Agriculture, says: 'American consumers can be assured that virtually all bacon pumped with nitrite cure is free from confirmable levels of nitrosamines.' After a year, the USDA's testing program designed to reduce the presence of cancer-causing nitrosamines in bacon has been 'overwhelmingly successful,' according to Foreman.
Schur went on to note that bacon is still a high-fat meat and suggested that it be used in moderation. She also offered three recipes that call for the use of bacon fat.
Her suggestion has caused near-apoplexy in some circles. Community Nutrition Institute has fired off letters to Foreman and to the editor of Parade, warning of the extra hazards associated with bacon drippings. Thomas Smith, research director at CNI, wrote to Foreman: " . . . do you plan to warn consumers, as the Expert Panel on Nitrites and Nitrosamines urged, about the double-strength doses of nitrosamines they're getting while unwittingly dripping bacon fat over vegetables, perhaps while rolling those wonderful government reassurances over in their minds?
To the editor of Parade, Smith wrote that Schur "should not be faulted for not knowing about the significant health hazard posed by bacon drippings," because USDA has not made this fact clear, But Smith said: " . . . the fat drippings from fried bacon contain substantially greater concentration of powerfully carcinogenic nitrosamines than does bacon lean. USDA does not test for nitrosamine content in bacon drippings; this byproduct must be considered a serious hazard, and consumers should not be encouraged to use these drippings under any circumstances."
Lost somewhere in the concern over nitrosamine levels in bacon after it is fried is the question about nitrosamine formation in the stomachs of people who eat it, whether it's in bacon or any other cured meat products.
One of the foremost cancer researchers in the country, whose expertise is in the field of nitrosamines (there are many kinds) refuses to eat bacon, or any other meats cured with nitrites. Dr. William Lijinsky, director of the chemical carcinogenesis program at the Frederick Cancer Research Center, explains that the nitrites in products such as bacon, hot dogs, ham and liverwurst can combine with amines, found in other foods, drugs and tobacco smoke, to form nitrosamines in the stomach. In other words, whether or not nitrosamines have been eliminated from the bacon itself is probably immaterial.
For those worried about the safety of products cured with nitrites, Schur makes reference to the nitrite-free products that are available, mostly on a local basis, in some parts of the country.
USDA had established regulations to govern the labeling of such products, permitting them to bear traditional names if they were similar to nitrite-cured products. Manufacturers would have been required to label them as "uncurred" and to prominently display instructions for keeping them refrigerated. But the National Pork Producers Council obtained a permanent injunction in an Iowa court against USDA's regulation.
Without the regulation, producers of nitrite-free products cannot, for instance, call uncured hot dogs, hot dogs. They must call them by some fancful name such as hot puppies. USDA is appealing.
USDA's bacon-nitrosamine testing program not withstanding, if you didn't want to bring home the bacon before, you still won't want to bring it home now.