We’ve crafted beautiful bacon for 25 years, drawing on traditions which are often hundreds of years old. To bring you the best value we also make use of state-of-the-art technology, as long as we can stay true to tradition. Then again, there are some modern techniques which don’t make it past our front door because we believe they compromise the quality of our product. You may have heard of the debate about the use of nitrates and nitrites in making bacon. There’s a fair bit of that which is simply confusing. We think it is time to tell the whole story of our bacon.

We always start with great ingredients

We only use pork from pigs born and raised in New Zealand, from farms that are certified to the Pigcare™ standard of animal welfare. In this way we are only supporting farmers who can provide us with the assurance that the welfare of their animals has been well provided for through their lives. Yes, this means the pork does cost us more, which in turn costs you more but you know what you are getting. We don’t use imported pork because we can’t ensure that the welfare of the animals has been provided for, and imported pork does not have to meet New Zealand’s world class welfare standards.

Dry-cured and manuka smoked

We dry-cure our bacon. There are various methods of curing bacon to give it its taste and colour. The time-honoured method is to cure the pork in salt, along with herbs and spices, for a long period of time – several days to several weeks.

Technological advances have dramatically reduced the time required. To us, that’s not always a good thing. Many bacon manufacturers “pump” a liquid cure directly into the pork, with a meat injector very fine needles to inject the cure, cutting the cure time down to a few hours.

We don’t pump a cure into our pork or use a liquid cure – we let our dry cure do its work over time. It’s why we guarantee our bacon won’t boil in its juices and shrink from the loss of added liquid, when you cook it. Of course, adding liquid adds weight to the bacon, so when you buy some bacon you’re also paying for water.

After dry-curing, we smoke the bacon using manuka woodchips, to give it that fantastic red colour and delicious flavour. That’s us: quality ingredients, ethically raised, animals, traditional dry-cured and manuka smoked.

Let’s talk about preservatives and the topic of the use of nitrates and nitrites. There’s been a fair bit of discussion on this recently, and over the last 100 years, for that matter. Here’s what we’ve learned from making bacon for 25 years.

The nitrate debate

In the meat curing process, nitrates and nitrites are salts that are used to cure and preserve meats. They have been in use for hundreds of years. No-one is quite sure when it all started but there is strong evidence that it was first used around in the 10th century BC, as a natural contaminant in the sea and mined salt that butchers were using to salt meats.

These salts remove much of the moisture from the meat and prevent the growth of bacteria – particularly the very nasty botulinum toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum, which we know as Botulism.

The other important thing to know is that nitrate serves as a ‘precursor’ to nitrite in the meat curing process. In other words, during curing the nitrate turns into nitrite. It’s the nitrite that cures the meat, gives it its flavour and colour, and preserves it.

A closer look at nitrates

It’s important to know that nitrate occurs naturally in green vegetables, and in high concentrates in some vegetables such as celery. Studies estimate that approximately 80% of people’s daily intake of nitrate is primarily from plant foods, fruit and water. The other interesting fact is that saliva accounts for 93% of the total daily intake of nitrate by humans. It all means that people have been absorbing nitrate since we first walked on the earth.

So what’s the issue?

It is not the nitrates and the nitrites in the meat curing process that cause the issue. It is the chemical reactions they can cause that is the problem. One of these chemical reactions can cause nitrosamines to form and it is the formation of these that have been linked to causing cancer cells.

Green vegetables contain antioxidants, which keep the nitrosamines under control. But when it comes to producing bacon the use of nitrites and nitrates in the production of bacon is a little trickier.

It was also discovered that when bacon was heated to over 130 Degrees Celsius there was more likelihood of those nasty nitrosamines being formed – a really good reason not to burn your bacon.

Ask the experts

To track down good, reliable information about nitrates, nitrites and nitrosamines, we wanted to see what technical experts and food regulators in New Zealand and around the world had to say.

Interestingly, we couldn’t find any guidelines from the New Zealand Food Regulators covering the issue of nitrosamines in bacon. However, the USA’s regulators, the Food and Drug Administration, better known as the FDA do have some guidelines.

We found out that after several attempts, over 50 years, in 1978 the FDA finally settled on a standard that does not permit the use of nitrate in bacon so that the concentrations of nitrite can be controlled more precisely.

The FDA also requires that bacon has sodium erythorbate, sodium asorbate or ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) added to the cure, regardless of curing method to inhibit the potential for the formation of nitrosamines during frying, oven baking or barbecuing. This standard has remained, virtually unchanged, for 40 years.

At Harrington’s we have adopted the FDA standard – to keep those nasty nitrosamines under control. Of course, we still don’t recommend that you eat several kilos of bacon a day.

We also had our bacon independently tested for residual nitrite levels. This test revealed the residual nitrite level was 27 parts per million parts. That is to say in a 250 gram packet of our bacon the nitrite component is 0.007 of a gram.

How about nitrite and nitrate free bacon?

As you know, nitrate occurs naturally in vegetables, particularly in celery. A number of bacon manufactures use celery powder, or other plant extracts, instead of sodium nitrite.

During the curing process the nitrate in the celery powder still creates nitrite. And there is no difference between the nitrite created by the celery powder and the nitrite created by sodium nitrate. Nitrite is nitrite regardless of where it comes from.

This is where it gets a little tricky for the New Zealand consumer.

Most countries, including New Zealand, allow bacon manufacturers to advertise their bacon as “Nitrite Free” bacon where they have used a natural nitrate like celery powder to make their bacon. And, there is nothing on the labelling to advise the customer that there is really no difference between this bacon and bacon made with sodium nitrite.

On the other hand, some bacon is made without natural or introduced nitrates and nitrites. This bacon is often rather grey in colour. In very recent times there have been a few companies who have been able to replicate the distinctive red colour of bacon though other methods. The big question is do these still taste like bacon?

Will we make bacon using natural nitrates?

Well, probably not, because the end result is that the bacon will still contain nitrites. Will we make “real” nitrite-free bacon? Yes, we’ll probably have a go at it and see if we can get one that looks and tastes as good as our current bacon.

In summary, here’s what you get with Harrington’s bacon

  • 100% New Zealand certified Pigcare™ pork from pigs born and raised in New Zealand, from farms that are certified to the Pigcare™ standard of animal welfare
  • Dry-cured, not pumped with liquid so it’s guaranteed not to shrink
  • Great looking and tasting bacon
  • Less chance of Nitrosamines being created in the cooking process by adopting the United States FDA standards.
As we said upfront (and we like to be upfront) these are the facts as we understand them. On balance, when you understand all the issues and you love to eat bacon, well, we reckon ours is a pretty good choice.