Despite concerns to human health, sodium and potassium salts of nitrite and nitrate (E 249-252) are used by food manufacturers as preservatives and colour-fixing agents in meat products, and to prevent bacterial infections such as Clostridium botulinum.
In a written question, the French members of EU parliament Guillaume Balas (S&D) and Michèle Rivasi from the Green party asked the Commission how it justified their use in food.
“Scientists have been alerting us of the indirectly carcinogenic nature of added nitrates and nitrites since the 1970s. These food additives […] are not directly carcinogenic. However, when brought in contact with meat, the nitric oxide present in these additives produces carcinogenic substances that increase the risk of consumers developing colorectal cancer.
“The argument that use of these additives protects food from botulism is invalid: strict hygiene conditions offer sufficient safeguards,” they added, asking if the Commission intended to ban the additives.
Responding to the politicians, health and food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said the EFSA scientific opinions provided sufficient information on the safety of the additives, and they “[did] not justify a general ban of the use of these substances as food additives”.
He added: “Nevertheless, after discussions with the member states, the Commission is considering revising the current food additive authorisations for E 249-252 to lower the uses and use levels to the extent possible, in the light of the EFSA opinions, as well as the 2016 study [by the Commission which stated that pork products can be produced without nitrates]. This would likely contribute to a decrease in the overall exposure.”
Balas and Rivasi drew attention to the fact that when the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) re-evaluated nitrite additives last year, they failed to take account of the carcinogenic effects of metabolised nitrite additives when advising on maximum levels.
Paolo Patruno, deputy secretary general of Clitravi, the trade body that represents the interests of Europe’s processed meat manufacturers, said: "It is important to understand that nitrates and nitrites are used for food safety purpose and that the 70% of the human intake of nitrates and nitrites comes from vegetables, the 13% from water and the 11% from processed meat products.
"In order to reduce the exposure and where possible, in any case and on a voluntary basis, our food and beverage operators (FBO) are using lower levels than the ones authorised.
"The statement of Commissioner Andriukaitis is in line with the EFSA opinion, as he clearly admits that lower levels would reduce the overall exposure, but it is important to bear in mind that processed meat products are not the main source of nitrates/nitrites if we consider the overall diet.
"Clitravi is ready to discuss the issue with the European Commission, always by taking into account that food safety comes first," Patruno told FoodNavigator.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation’s cancer research agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), added processed meats such as cured meats, sausages and bacon to its list of cancer-causing agents.
After evaluating the evidence, it found that processed meats are definite causes of cancer alongside substances including cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos, plutonium and arsenic. IARC scientists suggested that a daily 50 g portion of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
Alternatives are available
Curing meat without the use of nitrites and nitrates is possible.
Corsican sausage, Spanish chorizo and cooked ham from Brittany are traditionally made without the substances, and Parma ham has been nitrate-free since 1993.
Earlier this year, Northern Irish artisan food manufacturer Finnebrogue launched a nitrite-free bacon, dubbed Naked bacon, which uses a clean label blend Mediterranean fruit and spice extracts to replace the preservative.
The ingredient was developed by Spanish flavour supplier Prosur.
This is not the first time European politicians have pressed the Commission for action on nitrates for years, with requests coming from across parties in recent years.