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July 13, 2022

France acts to cut nitrites in meat after cancer risk warning

But it has shied away from an outright ban on their use.

By Andy Coyne

France is taking action to reduce the use of nitrites in cured meats after the country’s national health agency reported there was an associated cancer risk.

However, Paris has shied away from an outright ban on their use.

In a statement, the French government said in line with the recommendations of the agency – Anses – it will “put in place a coordinated action plan to achieve the reduction or elimination of the use of nitrate additives in all food products where this is possible without health impact and this as soon as possible”.

Processed meat makers use nitrites in products such as deli meats, sausages and bacon to add colour, extend their shelf life and to combat the risks of diseases related to bacteria such as salmonella.

But a World Health Organization report in 2018 linked nitrites and nitrates – used as a fertiliser in farming – to colorectal cancer when consumed via processed meat.

In its report, published on Tuesday (12 July), Anses also linked the substances to other cancers such as ovarian, kidney, pancreas, and breast, and advised cutting nitrates and nitrites in meat to a minimum.

Anses said processed meat consumption in France should be limited to an average of 150 grams per week.

In its statement responding to the Anses report – seen by Just Food – France said it planned to build on an earlier parliamentary bill to gradually reduce the use of nitrites in cured meats.

It said it would present a plan to the country’s parliament in the autumn aimed at cutting or eliminating nitrites where possible.

But it said an outright ban was not justified after Anses said that, based on consumption habits in France, 99% of the population did not exceed the permissible daily doses for all exposures to nitrites or nitrates.

It said Anses’ opinion complements the work carried out at EU level on acceptable daily intakes. A new European Commission opinion on the subject is expected by the end of the year.

Meat industry bodies in France reacted to the planned clampdown on nitrites in meat by stressing the industry had already significantly reduced its use of the ingredient.

Joël Mauvigney, president of one of the bodies, CNCT, said: “Anses’ recommendations are also perfectly in line with the policies followed by the butchers since 2016, aiming to reduce the amounts of nitrates and nitrites whenever possible without however endangering the health of consumers, due to the microbial risks of certain products containing none or not enough.

“Thus, craftsmen and charcuterie companies have already voluntarily reduced, since 2016, by 40% the maximum quantities of nitrites compared to European regulations, which makes France, with Denmark, the country that uses the least in the world.”

Bernard Vallat, chairman of another trade body, FICT, said the lower use of nitrites reduces the expiry date of processed meats and thus increases the risk of salmonella.

“If we caused microbial accidents because there are no more nitrites it would be even worse than the hypothetical risk mentioned,” he said.

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