Natural preservatives at risk of legal barriers, short circuit in the EU

natural preservatives

The European Commission has finally recognized the need to reduce the use of nitrites and nitrates to preserve various products of animal origin – i.e. meat, meat products, meat and fish preparations, cheeses (1) – but at the same time is now evaluating the possibility of regulating natural preservatives in the same way as chemically synthesized food additives.

There is thus a fear of interrupting the virtuous path of many operators who have already managed to eliminate or at least substantially reduce nitrites and nitrates – and thus, the exposure of consumers to dangerous nitrosamines (2) – thanks to the use of non-GMO ‘good bacteria’, such as lactic acid bacteria, which are able to compete with and inhibit the development of pathogenic microorganisms.

1) Natural preservatives, from plant ingredients to the fermentation of ‘food cultures’

The search for alternatives chemically synthesized additives for preserving food has made it possible to develop and experiment, in recent decades, with different types of natural preservatives:

– the ‘first generation’ natural preservatives were composed of vegetable ingredients with antioxidant and antimicrobial actions (3,4,5). However, some of them contain vegetable extracts which are often natural sources of nitrates (6,7). And since nitrates convert into nitrites during the maturing phase of the products, this solution was not found to be suitable for achieving the main objective of reducing their intake by consumers,

– understanding the decisive role of the microbial ecosystem on the quality of perishable foods has then made it possible to identify solutions based on the use offood cultures‘. The ‘good bacteria’ which, thanks to fermentation and enzymatic reactions, allow us to achieve a microbiological balance and its stability over time. So as to guarantee food safety and the preservation of organoleptic properties.

The fermentation of natural ‘food cultures’, extracted from plant and animal sources, is clearly rooted in the most ancient traditions of peoples. Thanks to this natural process, a great variety of foods are created, of vegetal origin (eg leavened and pickled foods, beers, wines, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha, etc.) and animal origin (eg yoghurt, kefir, cheeses, cured meats). ).

2) ‘Food cultures’ and food safety

Probiotics and other ferments, as well as microbial starters and enzymes, have been used as appropriate for millennia, centuries and decades. To perform technological functions with a favorable impact on the safety and quality of a growing quantity of food products, thanks to the development of research on their vitality.

natural preservatives

No risk of food safety has never been reported in relation to the use of microorganisms and natural fermentation processes. Which indeed, in some cases, can improve the bioavailability of proteins, as well as the digestibility and nutritional properties of foods. And they are therefore the subject of promising research. (8)

3) Transparency on the label

Transparency it is also guaranteed on the label by mentioning the categories of ‘food cultures’ used in the list of ingredients of the food products. The presence of some ‘good bacteria’, such as probiotics and lactic ferments, is also highlighted in information to consumers who associate these names with general health benefits, as part of balanced diets, as already known in scientific bibliography.

Some ‘food cultures’, vice versa, are not mentioned on the label as they perform a technological process function (‘processing aids’) but not also on the finished products. (9) As happens for example in cases where the ferments lose their vitality following heat treatments (e.g. pasteurization), in line with the provisions of the Food Information Regulation (EU) No 1169/11. (10)

4) Consumer expectations

Customers Europeans are increasingly aware of the serious health risks (carcinogenicity, genotoxicity) associated with the intake of foods containing nitrite and nitrate additives. Above all thanks to associations such as Foodwatch and ‘Ligue contre le cancer’ (F) which over the years have mobilized for their progressive elimination. (11)

‘Special Eurobarometer on food safety’ (EFSA, 2022) moreover shows how food additives are at the top of the food safety concerns of European consumers (70%), followed by pesticide residues (65%) and food poisoning (57%). (12) This explains the commercial success of ‘nitrites-free’ hams and cured meats. (13)

5) Natural ingredients and legal barriers, the short circuits in the EU

However, the progress of European industry, which has started the process of reducing and eliminating nitrites and nitrates in meat, cured meats, fish products and cheeses is hindered by governments which clearly express the reluctance of their local industries:

– in 2018 the German government ambushed the European Commission and the representatives of the other member states to obtain the favorable vote of the PAFF (Plants, Animals, Food and Feed Standing Committee) on a malicious interpretation of natural ingredients with technological functions and request authorization as food additives. (14) The German meat industry, first in Europe, has thus achieved the (partial) result of slowing down the competition of cutting-edge competitors,

– in 2023, the Dutch government presented a document to the PAFF which aims to also qualify ‘food cultures’ as food additives. In this case, with the clear objective of slowing down and increasing the costs of an effective innovation which, in combination, competes with the ‘buffered vinegar’ of the Dutch giant Purac Biochem BV (Corbion), leader on the global market of lactic acid and derivatives. The ‘buffered vinegar’ combination was authorized on 28 September 2023 as a food additive (E 267) with preservative and ‘acidity regulator’ functions. (15)

6) Precedents and perspectives

A similar precedent concerned ‘colouring foods’, natural ingredients which ran the risk of a ‘crackdown’ – authorization as food additives or ‘novel foods’ – and had therefore been the subject of specific guidelines (2013) which the Commission however depublished, without explanation, in 2018. (16)

The Dutch proposal of subjecting living, natural ingredients such as ‘food cultures’ to an authorization regime designed to evaluate the safety of chemical additives is entirely devoid of the, in fact non-existent, risk assessment that must justify reforms in European food law. (17)

Research and innovation aimed at improving the characteristics of foods with natural processes must be encouraged rather than hindered, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals in the UN Agenda 2030. (18) Health and well-being of populations (#sdg3), food security and reduction of food waste (# sdg2), sustainability of production and consumption (#sdg12).

Dario Dongo


(1) Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/2108 of 6 October 2023 amending Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council and the Annex to Commission Regulation (EU) No 231/2012 as regards food additives nitrites (E 249-250) and nitrates (E 251-252)

(2) Marta Strinati. EFSA opinion on nitrosamines in food. The population is at risk. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 30.3.23

(3) Salvatore Parisi, Dario Dongo. Polyphenols and natural phenolic compounds in food, new studies. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 16.7.19

(4) Marta Strinati. Natural preservatives in meat, prickly pear. University of Catania study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 23.12.19

(5) Galiano Quartaroli. Antimicrobials from plant waste, University of Parma patent. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 5.7.19

(6) Dario Dongo. Natural preservatives in meat. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 6.11.17

(7) Vegetable nitrates, which labels? The lawyer Dario Dongo answers. FARE (Food and Agriculture Requirements). 4.3.18

(8) See paragraph 4 in the previous article by Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Agrobiodiversity, ecological transition and mycoproteins. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 29.4.23

(9) ‘processing aid’ shall mean any substance which:
(i) is not consumed as a food by itself;
(ii) is intentionally used in the processing of raw materials, foods or their ingredients, to fulfill a certain technological purpose during treatment or processing; and
(iii) may result in the unintentional but technically unavoidable presence in the final product of residues of the substance or its derivatives provided they do not present any health risk and do not have any technological effect on the final product‘ (Food Additives Reg. EC No 1333/08, article 3.2.b)

(10) Food Information Regulation (EU) No 1169/11, article 20, paragraphs 1.b.ii, 1.d

(11) Marta Strinati. Nitrites in cured meats, the Court of Appeal of Aix-en Provence agrees with Yuka. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 10.12.22

(12) Marta Strinati. Special Eurobarometer 2022 on food safety. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 6.1.23

(13) Marta Strinati. Nitrites and nitrates in cured meats. Market study and analysis. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 30.4.22

(14) Dario Dongo. Plant extracts in meat, short circuit in Europe. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 8.5.19

(15) Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/2086 of 28 September 2023 amending Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council and the Annex to Commission Regulation (EU) No 231/2012 as regards the use of buffered vinegar as a preservative and acidity regulator

(16) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Coloring foods and their extracts. Ingredients or additives? GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 24.12.22

(17) General Food Law, Reg. (EC) No 178/02, article 6 (Risk analysis). The Danish Food Safety Authority has approved ‘food cultures’ for use in foods since 1973, based on dossiers submitted by the industry. After 37 years of experience, the Danish Food Safety Authority has not rejected even one application for authorization on food safety grounds. Since 2010, notification has therefore been provided on a voluntary basis

(18) See paragraph 4.3 in the previous article by Dario Dongo and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Horizon4Proteins. Protein research compared with EU policies and rules. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 21.5.23

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.