New calls for ban on bacon and ham preservatives

The debate surrounding the use of nitrites in processed meats is heating up again. By David Burrows.

France is going to cut the use of nitrites in food following a review by its health agency that confirmed they raise the risk of cancer. Could the UK follow suit, or go further with a complete ban? “This is a hugely significant moment in time and I hope will kick start not only a UK ban but action across the world,” wrote Professor Chris Elliott in a blog for New Food magazine last week. 

Elliott is among a coalition of experts and MPs that came together this month to call for a ban on nitrates and nitrites used for curing meat. The group, which is being led by Conservative MP Dr Daniel Poulter, a former health minister and practising NHS doctor, wants meat producers to use natural alternatives that perform the same role during curing of meats like bacon and ham, The Guardian reported.

A letter to Steve Barclay, the new health secretary, and Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical officer, highlighted studies by the World Health Organisation, UK, US and European universities, and even the UK government’s own agencies, that suggest a link between the consumption of nitrite-cured meat and bowel cancer – the cause of over 10,000 deaths in the UK every year. 

Evidence on this topic is far from clear-cut – as previous articles by The GuardianBBC and a recent blog by Ethical Butcher, all suggest. But with nitrite-free options now readily available some are asking whether it’s really worth taking the risk?

The new coalition urged ministers to pass “legislation to ban the use of nitrites in food production and remove a potential health hazard that consumers are worryingly unaware of”. This “could see an avoidable cause of cancer taken out of circulation”.

Banning the use of nitrites in the manufacturing of bacon and ham should be a “relatively straightforward thing for the meat industry to do”, wrote Elliott. “It has been proven that we no longer need these chemicals to make the delicious tasting and wonderful looking bacon that so many of us love as part of our regular diet.”

Finnebrogue’s bacon brand Better Naked has been nitrite-free since it launched just over four years ago. The company’s founder and chairman Denis Lynn, who died last year, told Foodnavigator in January 2018 that “for more than a decade I have insisted we do not touch bacon until such time as we can make it better and safer – and now we have”.

Finnebrogue now supplies nitrite-free bacon to TGI Fridays and Leon. M&S and Waitrose sell nitrite-free bacon, while Co-op reduced nitrite levels by 60% in 2020. If pressure builds other foodservice and grocery brands could make changes too.

The British Pig Association and the British Meat Producers Association said levels of nitrites are within safe limits approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). “Working with the latest scientific research, our producers have, over several years, been implementing new methods to get nitrite use as low as possible without jeopardising public health,” the BMPA said. 

New research on optimal levels of nitrites and nitrates that both protect against harmful pathogens like Clostridium botulinum and Listeria and limit potentially harmful side effects is imminent.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) pointed to the importance of these preservatives and noted that no direct link between the consumption of nitrates and nitrites in processed meats and colorectal (bowel) cancer has been established. “The FSA considers that existing levels of nitrites and nitrates are sufficiently protective for consumers,” said a spokeswoman.

This is in line with EFSA assessments which concluded that the existing approved safe levels for nitrites and nitrates added to meat and other foods are “sufficiently protective” for consumers and that in certain processed meats the addition of between 50-150 mg/kg nitrite is necessary to inhibit the growth of Clostridium botulinum.

Rick Mumford, head of science, evidence and research at the FSA said: “Nitrates are important preservatives which hinder the growth of harmful organisms, in particular the bacteria responsible for botulism – which can be life-threatening. They are regulated by the FSA and Food Standards Scotland as a food additive and before authorisation must pass a robust safety assessment. Because of the possible link between eating too much red and processed meats and bowel cancer, the government recommends limiting consumption of these products to 70g per day,” he added. 

Reporting on the plans in France, Reuters suggested a full ban was not justified given that 99% of the population didn’t exceed the permissible daily exposures to nitrites. Anses, the country’s health agency, has identified several levers, including reducing the use of nitrite additives in processed meats, which must be done in a “controlled manner to avoid an increase in food poisoning”. 

With pressure growing on the UK to follow France’s lead it’s not hard to envisage more foodservice operators switching to natural alternatives to get ahead of the regulatory curve. FSA’s Mumford said any replacement of nitrate or nitrite as a food additive must be with an authorised alternative and correctly labelled to reflect its use. 

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