French butchers reject calls for ban on nitrates in food products

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/Jenifoto
Getty/Jenifoto

Related tags: Ham, Cured meat, nitrates, Meat

With the French Assembly set to vote on 28 January on legislation aiming to ban the use of nitrates in food products, the Federation of Industrial Charcutiers (FICT) claims there are no health risks associated with the use of nitrites at the current recommended levels.

If passed, the bill (which then needs to go to the Senate), tabled by members of President Macron’s centrist bloc, would mean a ban on the addition of nitrites and nitrates in raw ham such as Bayonne and Parma ham from 2023 and a ban on other meat products including cooked ham, andouillette, boudin, terrine or rillettes, from 2025.

The legislation would make France the first European country to impose such a ban. 

It would also compel, up to 2023, clear labelling on processed meat containing nitrites or nitrates added specifying: "Contains nitrites or nitrates added and which can promote colorectal cancer" as well as the quantity of additives used. The legislation also concerns nitrated additives from vegetable broths rich in nitrites and nitrates. 

The proposed legislation came about after pressure from the French Anti-Cancer League, consumer group Foodwatch France and the nutrition app Yuka.

Preservatives and nitrates are used in cured pork meats in order to supress harmful bacteria and to give the meat colouring. But the groups claim additives E249 (potassium nitrite), E 250 (sodium nitrite), E251 (sodium nitrate) and E252 (nitrate) potassium) - particularly used in processed meats such as industrial sausages -- present a health hazard, which when ingested can contribute to the formation of carcinogenic compounds in our stomach called nitrosamines.

They claim these substances are classified as probable carcinogens to humans (category 2A) by the International Agency for Research against Cancer, because they promote the development of colorectal cancer. The groups – which also demand a ban on nitrates in food products across Europe as a whole -- estimate that the nitrates in cooked meats cause around 4,000 cases of cases in France each year.  

But FICT, which represents 300 delicatessen companies in France, called these claims ‘unjustified’. It cites the European Food Standards Authority’s latest risk assessment of nitrates added to food, which concluded the existing safety levels for nitrites and nitrates intentionally added to meat and other foods are sufficiently protective for consumers. The current acceptable daily intake (ADI) for nitrates is 3.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg bw/day). The safe level for nitrites was re-established at 0.07 mg/kg bw/day, close to the slightly more conservative existing ADI of 0.06 mg/kg bw/day.

ANSES, in its 2011 opinion, considered that the intake of nitrites in accordance with the regulations does not constitute a public health problem. Further, the Académie de l'Agriculture de France issued a report in November 2020​ in which it concluded that “the suspected risk of an increase in colorectal cancer linked to the use of nitrites as additives in cold meats at the dosages authorized by regulation no. 'is not scientifically established by the toxicological and epidemiological studies available today'.”

“Today, all official collective scientific assessments confirm that there is no risk associated with the use of nitrites at the doses used in cold cuts,”​ said a FICT statement.

It added that butchers were taking steps to reduce additives and nitrates in products. "Aware that consumers want fewer additives in food and fewer nitrites in deli meats, deli companies are pursuing their efforts for years by voluntarily reducing additives by 50% and nitrites by 20% in 2020 (after a first reduction of 20% in 2016 compared to the regulations), i.e. on average less than 100 milligrams per kilogram of cold cuts instead of 150 mg / kg authorized by the regulations. This is why we want to restore the truth and continue to delight the French with healthy and delicious products."

Ophélia Bierschwale from Yuka, told FoodNavigator: “We really hope nitrites will be banned gradually in France but we can't predict the results of this vote. Unfortunately the pressure put by the deli meat manufacturers (who are strongly against this withdrawal) is pretty important.”

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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