Food Safety Focus (132nd Issue, July 2017) – Incident in Focus
Learn More About Luncheon Meat and Sausages
Reported by Dr. Cherrie NG, Veterinary Officer,
Risk Assessment Section,
Centre for Food Safety
In mid June 2017, the results of a local study on luncheon meat and canned sausages were released. It was found that the majority of the samples were high in sodium and fat content. In one luncheon meat sample, residue of antimicrobials was found. This article discusses the production of luncheon meat and some sausages, their sodium and fat content, the antimicrobial residue detected in the luncheon meat sample and gives advice to the public and the trade.
Figure 1: Nutritional composition of luncheon meat (source: Nutrient Information Inquiry System , nutritional composition may vary depending on the formula of the products).
Production of Luncheon Meat and Some Sausages
Luncheon meat and some sausages are compound food with essential ingredients of meat, water and curing ingredients consisting of salt and nitrites. Fat (in the form of animal fat or vegetable oil), spices, other ingredients and additives may also be added. The components are processed raw and the resulting viscous batter is then heated to make the end product. Apart from providing the salty flavour, salt also helps opening up the structure of proteins in combination with water to assist in forming the batter. Sodium / potassium nitrite is a curing ingredient which is added to produce the development of the characteristic pink colour in processed meat products, and reacts with proteins to form compounds that inhibit the development of spores of Clostridium botulinum when heated.
Processed Meat and Health
Group 1 Carcinogenic to Humans
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), processed meat (including luncheon meat and sausages) is carcinogenic to humans (Group1) and each 50g portion of processed meat conusmed daily can increase the risk of colorectal cancer by18%. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that people who eat meat should moderate the consumption of processed meat to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
High in Sodium and Fat
The sodium content of luncheon meat is usually high because common salt (sodium chloride), and sodium nitrite (if chosen to be the curing ingredient) are added. Fat is also added to make the product softer and more palatable. Eating too much sodium increases the risk of high blood pressure and excessive intake of fat increases the risk of overweight and obesity; these in turn are risk factors of heart diseases and other chronic non-communicable diseases. On average, 100g (around half a small can) of luncheon meat contains approximately 1000mg of sodium and 16g of fat, which contributes to 50 % of the daily intake upper limit of 2000mg of sodium and 27% of the daily intake upper limit of 60g of fat (based on a 2000-Kcal diet) respectively as recommended by WHO (Figure 1). To make an informed choice, consumers can read the nutrition labels on prepackaged food.
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), antimicrobial agents are essential to protect human and animal health, as well as animal welfare. Therefore the OIE advocates the responsible and prudent use of antimicrobial agents. The Codex Standards in relation to veterinary drug residues are specified in the “Codex Alimentarius Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) and Risk Management Recommendations for Residues of Veterinary Drugs in Foods”. Whilst the fore-mentioned local study put focus on the MRL in compound food such as luncheon meat, Codex MRLs are applicable to the original animal tissues instead. In Hong Kong, similar approach is adopted where maximum concentrations are applicable to commodities such as muscle, liver and kidney, but not compound food. In general, competent authorities in other countries regulate the potential contamination of veterinary drug residue by applying MRLs in the raw materials, i.e. animal tissues.
With regards to the possibility of development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), a single exposure to residues of veterinary drugs is unlikely to cause AMR in the intestinal flora. In addition, there is currently no sufficient evidence to affirm that chronic exposure to low dose of antimicrobial residues in food can significantly increase the development of resistance microorganisms in the intestinal flora. Further studies on the associated risk are required.
Key Points to Note:
- Luncheon meat and sausages are processed meat which is classified as carcinogenic to humans by the IARC.
- Processed meat generally has high sodium content.
- The WHO advises that people who eat meat should moderate the consumption of processed meat to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
Advice to the Trade
- Adhere strictly to the local regulations, including the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations, Preservatives in Food Regulation and Harmful Substances in Food Regulations with regards to nutrition labelling, use of food additives and veterinary drug residue respectively.
Advice to the Public
- Moderate the consumption of processed meat to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
- Read the nutrition labels to make informed choices of food and reduce sodium intake.