Meat producers lay out work to reduce nitrites in cured pork products as campaigners demand action

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/apomares
Image: Getty/apomares

Related tags: Meat, Pork, Bacon

The British meat industry says it is actively engaged in working to reduce nitrites in cured pork products after reports by The Guardian that a group of food scientists and MPs in the UK are pushing for a ban on the use of chemicals in bacon that they claim heighten the risk of several forms of cancer.

In a letter to the Health Minister Steve Barclay and the government’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the group has asked that UK meat producers use more natural alternatives to nitrites that perform the same role during curing.

The letter stated: "Studies carried out by the World Health Organization, UK, US and European universities, and even the UK government’s own agencies suggest a link between the consumption of nitrite-cured meat and bowel cancer."

The letter continued: "Given advances in food manufacturing mean we can get the familiar colour and flavour of our bacon without nitrites, there is simply no good reason not to do this."

Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Safety, who is among the letter’s signatories, said: "Nitrites are found in many foods and can be perfectly harmless. But when they are used to cure bacon, and that bacon is then cooked and ingested, they produce carcinogenic nitrosamines in the stomach."

In response, the National Pig Association said processors have ‘already made significant historical progress’. It said that this year alone some processors have reduced their ingoing nitrites by up to 60 percent.

The British Meat Processors Association said that the ongoing work to reduce nitrites in cured pork products is one that the British meat industry is actively engaged in. “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,”​ it said.

The latest evolution of this scientific research out of the EU is currently being presented to the UK and European Food Standards Agencies for review. This goes “further than any previous research in this area to test how different levels of nitrite in food perform both from a food safety perspective and from a health perspective.”​ The BMPA said.

The research, published today by the French Health agency ANSES, comes from the Institut du Porc along with Les Enterprises Francaises De Charcuterie Traiteur have conducted new trials using a laboratory simulation of a human stomach to discover the optimal levels of nitrates and nitrites in meat products that both provide safety against harmful pathogens like Clostridium Botulinum and Listeria, but that limit the potentially harmful side effects in the digestive process. “It’s the first time such a detailed simulation of a human stomach has been used and it shows exactly how these foods are broken down and what happens to the nitrites they contain across numerous different products and concentrations,”​ the BMPA said.

ANSES’s report confirms the existence of an association between the risk of colorectal cancer and exposure to nitrites and/or nitrates, whether they are ingested through the consumption of processed meat, or through the consumption of drinking water. “The higher the exposure to these compounds, the higher the risk of colorectal cancer in the population,”​ it said.

The agency considers that the intentional addition of nitrites and nitrates in the diet must be done in an approach "as low as reasonably achievable"​, it said.

However, a balance needs to be struck. For example, in processed meats, the addition of nitrates aims in particular to limit the development of bacteria causing diseases such as salmonellosis, listeriosis or botulism. 

Some manufacturers use plant extracts or vegetable broths as substitutes for nitrite additives, meanwhile. This does not constitute a real alternative, said ANSES, insofar as they naturally contain nitrates which, under the effect of bacteria, are converted into nitrites. These so-called “no added nitrite”​ or “zero nitrite”​ products therefore contain hidden nitrates and nitrites. 

According to the Agency, the reduction of their use as low as reasonably possible can be envisaged on the imperative condition of taking measures to control the risk of contamination by these bacteria by other means. These measures must be adapted to each product category. For example, for cooked ham, the reduction of nitrites could be accompanied by the shortening of the expiry date. For dry-cured ham, this would imply strict control of the salt content and temperature during the salting, resting and curing stages of the product.

To limit their exposure to nitrates and nitrites, ANSES also reminded consumers to limit their consumption of charcuterie to 150 grams per week; have a varied and balanced diet, with at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day from different sources.

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