Potassium nitrite (listed as E249 in the EU) and sodium nitrite (E250) are used by food manufacturers as preservatives and colour-fixing agents in meat-based products, and to prevent bacterial infections such as Clostridium botulinum.
Yet a draft motion for a resolution, penned by French MEPs from the EU party Europe of Nations and Freedom and France's far-right party the National Front reads: “Several scientific studies have confirmed the link between the combination of nitrites and aminos, and colorectal and stomach cancer [and] the International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC], an agency of the World Health Organisation, classifies nitrites as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans'.
"The European Parliament […] urges the Commission to reduce the legal limits for nitrites or to ban them altogether, in line with the conclusions drawn by the European Food Safety Authority and by reliable independent scientific studies [and] to promote alternatives to nitrites in the sectors concerned for the prevention of bacterial infections, in particular Clostridium botulinum.”
A more recent written declaration, filed on 30 November, was also signed by MEPs from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and the European People's Party.
Last year IARC evaluated the evidence for cancer risk from the consumption of red meat and processed meat, and found that the consumption of red meat is "probably carcinogenic to humans" while processed meats were found to be "carcinogenic to humans".
It said a 50 g portion of processed meat – such as cured meats, sausages, bacon and other meat that have been cured, smoked or had salt or preservatives added – eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
A spokesperson for one of the MEPs demanding action, Mireille d'Ornano, told us: "The aim of these legislative documents is to demand further investigation within these substances. There are currently several alternative solutions that are being studied with respect to Clostridium botulinum, such as lactic acid, [that] are also worth investigating further."
This is not the first time MEPs have asked the Commission to act on nitrite and nitrate salts. Centre-right Romanian MEP Daniel Buda raised the issue in a written question earlier this year.
Commissioner for health and food safety Vytenis Andriukaitis responded at the time: “The current authorisation of nitrates/nitrites as food additives, based on a scientific opinion of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), establishes safe maximum use levels, striking a balance between the risk of the formation of nitrosamines and the protective effect of nitrates/nitrites against harmful bacteria.”
Andriukaitis said the Commission would consider whether current authorisations should be amended once EFSA has delivered a new scientific opinion.
The Parma-based authority is currently re-evaluating the safety of nitrates and nitrites as part of its review of all food additives that were authorised in the Union before 2009, and is expected to deliver an opinion by the end of the year.
Andriukaitis said the Commission would also take into account information on technological aspects of the use of the additives by industry in different categories of meat products.
Clean label alternatives
Consumer demand for clean label meat has led to several innovations in preservatives.
Dutch company Corbion has a range of clean label preservatives for meat products sold under the brand name Verdad F, which can be labelled as ‘fermented sugar and/or vinegar’.
Other plant-based, clean label preservatives for meat include extracts of celery, citrus, rosemary, mushroom, grape seed or oregano.