Good things: Sausages and bacon free from nitrates and nitrites
“As cheesy as it sounds,” begins Jason Ross, wagyu man, meat fan and passionate producer, “what we do every day is actually for the betterment of the planet.” Ambitious, yes. And Jason knows it. Phrases like “effect positive change” and “reach our full potential” follow, but they don’t drop easily from his lips … so he changes tack. “It’s all just a wordy way of saying we want to change the world. Because we do.”
Jason is the co-founder of First Light Foods, a Hawke’s Bay-based premium grass-fed wagyu and venison company hell-bent on giving consumers choice — the choice to eat wonderful, flavoursome meat, tender every time. It’s also the choice to enjoy meat without being forced to swallow chemicals that the World Health Organisation understands could cause cancer, in particular colorectal cancer. Those chemicals are called nitrites and nitrates — and they are part of a family of preservatives commonly used in preparing bacon, salami and sausages for safe consumption. But First Light is disrupting that model and extending its offering with a range of three European-style cooked sausages that contain no chemicals whatsoever, and are (obviously, because NZ food regulations aren’t going anywhere) still safe to eat. Every cut of meat going into their sausies is from their own supply chain of farms the length and breadth of New Zealand; the farmers are also First Light shareholders, so Jason knows them personally, their farming practices and their animals. “I’ve admired the art of European charcuterie for a long time,” says Jason, who “tumbled out” of the wholesale meat industry to start First Light, along with two mates, in 2003. “That might be a German sausage artisan or an Italian bresaola producer or the Swiss, who make many delicious dried and cured products. Common to them all is that their sausages are cooked, not raw. And those sausages are premium, specialist products.”
Compare that to New Zealand, Jason says, where huge numbers of us have grown up eating regular sausage made of butchers’ trim. Those sausages are raw, pink, and pumped with preservative — “because without it, they’d turn brown on the shelf and consumers would respond by walking on past”. Cooked sausages aren’t commonplace here; those that are widely available are “saveloys, cheerios, or those free-flow sausages flipped on a barbecue outside Mitre 10 on a Saturday morning to raise money for surf lifesaving,” says Jason. “We’ve all had them and they serve their purpose, but only if you don’t think too hard about what you’re putting in your mouth.”
Jason doesn’t like to dwell on the fact that plenty of us are devouring sausages containing probable carcinogens, but he’ll happily espouse the virtues of First Light’s sausage making method, which is to briefly pre-cook their range, vacuum-pack them, and get them on the shelves quick-smart. And he’s confident people will love the taste — there’s a kid friendly kransky using cheese from Whitestone, a chipotle sausie with piquancy from Barker’s, and a venison offering, partnering with The True Honey Co. “New Zealand just seems wide open right now for a range of really kick-arse sausages. And I think we are also ready to eat a sausage that isn’t bright red, or pale pink. ”Europe already knows about brown sausages — they’ve got bratwurst, currywurst, kohlwurst and a million other wursts — and America precooks its bangers as a matter of course. “Here, in New Zealand we use nitrites and nitrates, extending the shelf life and “pinking” our meat. But when you think about it, pink should be a red flag — a warning sign that this is a product laden with chemicals.”
With strong views on the subject — “people are already demanding better steaks. It won’t be long until they want better sausages too” — you might wonder whether Jason and his team would just prefer the Government did the thinking for us and banned the sale of nitrite and nitrate-containing food products altogether. He shakes his head. “No. We’re not advocating for that. It’s not an ‘or’ situation, it’s about giving buyers more choice — giving them an ‘and’. People are increasingly curious about where their meat comes from and our supermarkets are getting really good at giving consumers choice. “And it’s choice that makes consumers happy.”
Jason’s ready to dish up another of First Light’s lofty goals. He shifts a little in his seat but ploughs ahead. “We’re slowly but surely building a tribe of conscientious consumers. ”What that means, he offers, is that if anyone has ever worried about what goes into their sausages, now they don’t have to. “I’ve got kids myself, and I know that the family diet is important to heaps of Kiwis. If that’s not a big deal to you, go and buy the other sausages — the ones filled with nitrite — and see how you get on. Or you can buy our sausages that taste better, are cooked better, and ARE better.” He grins. “We don’t aim to please all the people all of the time. We’re just happy to please the conscientious ones."
First Light sausages are sold at select supermarkets. Find out more at firstlight.farm
Daniel Todd is the founder and owner of Woody’s in Horowhenua, producing pork and pork products — for an increasingly conscientious market. Among them is his nitrite-free bacon, although Daniel is quick to point out that he still produces a nitrite-cured one too. “The reason is simple — the consumer wants choice,” he says. “I believe that choice is better than arguments for or against a particular ingredient.”
Instead of nitrite, his preservative-free bacon is cured using brown sugar, sage and sea salt. But yes, the colour is distinctly different from a regular pink bacon and that can take some getting used to. “Consumers buy with their eyes first, and when faced with brown bacon and pink ‘normal’ bacon on the shelf, they will usually choose the ‘normal’ one.” But online, where Woody’s does a large portion of its sales, things are different. “We sell mostly nitrite-free bacon through our website.”
Daniel reckons this is because when it’s not merchandised next to the alternative, you don’t really see any colour difference — buyers are solely focused on getting a high-quality product into the online trolley and couriered to their door. Daniel is positive the pendulum is swinging though, and that supermarket buyers will increasingly make the nitrite-free choice. “Buying better quality meat from ethical farmers means you are putting fewer chemicals into your body overall,” he says, “that’s not only nitrite, but also the antibiotics and GM proteins intensive farms have to use in order to farm that way. You make the choice.”
Find out more and buy online at woodysfarm.co.nz
The what of WHO
In 2015, the World Health Organization released the findings of a study establishing that all red and processed meat is a cancer-risk to humans. The wording on nitrites/nitrates was vague — “Different preservation methods could result in the formation of carcinogens (e.g.N-nitroso compounds), but whether and how much this contributes to the cancer risk is unknown.
”However, further research by Frenchman Guillaume Coudra in his 2017 book on the topic supported the notion that chemicals cause salami, bacon and sausages to be much more carcinogenic than fresh meat. Here, the Ministry for Primary Industries website states that while “eating high levels of nitrite may pose a risk to your health, and eating high levels of nitrates can also be a risk” there is no proven link to cancer. “Research is ongoing but to date there is no convincing evidence showing that nitrate/nitrite consumption leads to cancer,” it says.