In 2006 EU directive 2006/52/EC established maximum levels for the use of nitrites in meat products, balancing out their benefits in inhibiting the growth of microorganisms like Clostridium botulinum with a downside – that they can lead to formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines.
The ADI (acceptable daily intake) set was 0.07mg per kg body weight a day. Bearing this in mind, EFSA and the Scientific Committee on Food were of the opinion that 50-100mg of nitrite per kg of meat is enough for most products, but for those with a low salt content and prolonged shelf-life up to 150mg/kg may be required.
However Denmark expressed concern as to whether these levels would cause Danish people to exceed the ADI, and it questioned whether these nitrite levels are really technologically necessary.
The member state applied for permission to keep more stringent limits in place. This request was allowed in 2008, but only for a period of two years pending the Danish authorities demonstrating that the levels in the directive would lead to unacceptable risk.
No ADI change
EFSA, which was asked to assess the data provided by Denmark, has now concluded that there is no evidence to necessitate a reassessment of the ADI. However it did say that in some European countries mean exposure would exceed the ADI based on the current levels.
Moreover, the panel said that exposure to nutrosamines in food should be minimised; use of nitrate and nitrite in foods should be kept to the minimum required to have the necessary preservative effect, and ensure microbiological safety.
The implications for use of nitrites in products sold in Denmark will now be for the Commission to determine.
However a number of non-nitrite solutions for preserving cured meats and preventing microbiological spoilage have been the subject of R&D by food ingredients companies.
For example, Danisco launched two new cultures which it says can be used in meat products instead of nitrite salts, which have to be labelled as E250 – a reference said to be negatively perceived by consumers now.
Researchers from Tarbiat Modares University reported in the journal Food Chemistry in 2008 that annatto (Bixa orellana L.) powder may partially replace nitrites in sausages without affecting the microbial or sensory profiles of the finished product.