Europe’s small-farming methods have worked for centuries, and they still follow them. “In the U.S.,” says Knight, “we have need for a healthier product. We put the minimal amount of salt in our products. Some European hams have salt contents upward of 11 percent. Supermarket hams have about 8 percent salt. My ham is at 3, the minimum-required salt for ham.”
Then there’s fat content. Knight says that two years ago he allowed some of his salamis to contain 30 percent fat. “But people don’t want that. And some people like lean, lean sausage. That’s just a product of our environment. So we cater to the American palate.”
Today, the injection of nitrates and nitrites into processed meats has become the hot-button issue. The centuries-old processing methods used on family farms in Europe did without them. And here Knight lines up on the side of those farmers. He tells me that the big meat processors, such as Farmer John, are committed to the use of nitrates because they are the most effective single agent in preventing botulism. But the old method of dehydration, he argues, is just as effective. It uses salt and plain old drying. As long as “water activity” is reduced low enough, the process functions as well as nitrates. “Water activity,” Knight says, “is the amount of water left in a product that allows microbiological growth. The dehydration process creates in the meats an environment that cannot support that microbiological growth.”
Again, the Knight Salumi Co. is responding to growing American sensitivities. Its owner, however, is not totally convinced of the danger of nitrates. “It’s a debate right now,” he says. “Some studies show that nitrates are dangerous, others that they are safe.” The greatest dangers seem to occur when products such as bacon are cooked. Nitrates injected into the meat become nitrites over time, and these can transform further into nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic, raising the risk of certain cancers, especially stomach cancer. Any debate that remains over the safety of nitrates seems to center on what might happen if they were not used in the huge meat-processing operations. Even the European Food Information Council states, “Without preservatives our food chain would not be as safe as it is today. Nitrates and nitrites used in processed meats protect against the deadly Clostridium botulinum.”
Knight tells me he is not an anti-nitrate ideologue. “But some of the organic producers are using creative marketing to lie to people,” according to Knight. He suggests I look in grocery stores for organic products that claim they do not add nitrates. “Nitrates are found naturally in a lot of fruits and vegetables. They’re in celery, radishes, cherries, even wine. The processors take celery, they juice it, reduce it down, and mechanically separate the extract until it meets the same concentration of nitrates as a curing salt has. They put that in their product and say on the label ‘No nitrates’ or ‘No nitrates added,’ while underneath that, in the ingredient list, is celery juice extract. So we say on our website that we cure meat without adding nitrates via chemical additives, curing salts, via vegetable extracts, juices, or any other derivatives.”
As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is suspicious of the processes used at Knight Salumi and similar operations. The department sends representatives to the premises where two-pound samples of meat are tested regularly. Knight has never been written up for safety violations, but “they think what we do is dangerous,” he tells me. “That’s ridiculous.”
Knight and I count the ways that big meat processors are deceptive. Take items that call themselves pork. “Well,” says Knight, “there are plenty of pieces of pork, some of them less appetizing than others. Go pick up the Reynaldo’s brand chorizo. Pork salivary glands and lymph nodes make up 50 percent of that product. Do you want to eat a bunch of filters?
“When it comes to organic labeling of meat, all that’s required is for 70 percent of the product to be organic. That leaves 30 percent that might not be. You can have irradiated spices; you can have a filler, GDL [glucono delta-lactone], which is a chemical acidifier. When you eat pepperoni that gives you heartburn all the time, it’s been chemically acidulated. In a natural process, your body tolerates the meat much better when you digest it and you don’t get heartburn.”
I ask Knight what “fillers” do. I’ve been told they cause problems for people with gluten sensitivity. “We call them sawdust,” says Knight. “They’re made out of concentrated whey protein powder. A glutinous net in the fillers captures moisture, oils, and fat. Bologna, mortadella, frankfurters are all loaded with them. The reason the processors add the fillers is because moisture retention is money retention. Fat retention is money retention. Big processors dry their meat to a 30 percent moisture loss. We dry ours to 48 and 50 percent.”
Is that reflected in your prices? I ask. “Yes,” says Knight. “We’re middle of the road.” Of the two other companies mentioned in the Wall Street Journal story, one prices its products lower and one higher.