foodwatch France, along with the League Against Cancer and Yuka, gathered over half a million supporters demanding the ban of nitrites and nitrates (E249, E250, E251, and E252) due to their confirmed cancer risk. However, decision makers, including the French government, prioritize the processed meat industry over public health, while the European proposal suggests only minimal reductions in dosage, despite available alternatives.
The presence of nitrite additives in processed meats is one of the factors that led the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to classify these meats as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1A). According to the IARC, consuming 50g of processed meat daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
Nitrite and nitrate-based additives in our food pose a health hazard. The treatment of processed meats with nitrites leads to the formation of carcinogenic compounds such as nitrosamines and nitrosamides. They also lead to, perhaps most importantly, the formation of a highly stable complex, nitrosomyoglobin, which is responsible for the colour of transform meat. The digestion of these compounds in the meat leads to the in-situ formation of carcinogenic nitrate derivatives in the gastrointestinal tract.
Since 2005, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been documenting the impact of processed meats treated with these additives on the occurrence of colorectal cancer, the second most deadly cancer after lung cancer, and stomach cancer. During this period, new studies have pointed out the risks associated with these additives, forcing French health authorities to reconsider their position.
In July 2022, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) confirmed "the existence of a positive association between exposure to nitrates and/or nitrites through processed meat and the risk of colorectal cancer."
Nitrite and nitrate-based additives are pervasive.
Nitrite and nitrate-based additives are primarily used in processed meats such as white ham, rillettes, sausages, bacon, and more. These additives are listed in the ingredients under the code names E249 (potassium nitrite), E250 (sodium nitrite), E251 (sodium nitrate), and E252 (potassium nitrate). Classified as preservatives, they allow for longer shelf life and help prevent bacterial proliferation. They also act as colourants, giving processed meats their characteristic pink colour, and provide a particular taste to certain deli meats.
All this is done at a lower cost and without taking into account the medium-term risks to our health. However, we can do without them! An increasing number of manufacturers are producing "nitrite-free" deli meats, which are prominently displayed in many supermarket aisles, especially in France. While some industrial producers claim that they cannot do without these additives, traditional deli products such as Parma ham, Bayonne ham, certain Corsican charcuterie, or certain Spanish chorizos, for example, have proven otherwise for many years without presenting any additional health risks to consumers.
Significant mobilisation in France
For nearly four years, foodwatch France has partnered with the Yuka app and the League Against Cancer to demand the elimination of added nitrites and nitrates from our food. Today, this petition has gathered over half a million signatures. These mobilisation efforts have brought political initiatives to the National Assembly, and several bills banning these additives have been put to a vote. Under pressure, the government - through its Minister of Agriculture, Marc Fesneau - had promised to follow the ANSES recommendations and ensure that "the health of French consumers is the government's only compass."
However, despite ANSES confirming the link between exposure to nitrites and nitrates through processed meat and the risk of cancer, the French government published an action plan in March 2023 devoid of commitment and ambition. Yielding to pressure from the charcuterie industry, France fell short of an outright ban and chose only simple reductions in dosage and voluntary commitments.
This plan is not just another refusal to prioritise the general interest and public health and to bow under lobbying pressure. It also validates a two-speed market: on one side, processed meats with added nitrites for uninformed individuals or those unable to afford more expensive alternatives; and on the other side, "nitrite-free" options accessible to only a small portion of the population. This is completely unacceptable.
Europe as an arbitrator?
On March 28, 2023, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conducted a rapid review of its 2015 opinion in light of ANSES' new opinion. Based on the conclusions, the chairman of the expert group stated that "the level of exposure to nitrosamines in foodstuffs is concerning for health." Remember, nitrosamines are just one of the substances that pose a problem when nitrite-based additives are used (see explanation above).
The presence of solutions already available on the European market, coupled with clear alerts from scientists, should trigger the eventual ban of these additives. Simply reducing the added nitrites and nitrates is entirely insufficient. At foodwatch, we will repeat it as many times as necessary: the only "safe" quantity for these substances recognized as potentially carcinogenic in processed meats is ZERO. The only way to achieve this is for the government or legislators to have the political courage to prohibit the addition of nitrites and nitrates to our food. In other words, it is time to finally prioritise public health.