FRANCE – Following a risk assessment by the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES), France might soon ban the use of nitrites in food which has been linked to cancer.

The move follows a French parliament bill in February aiming to gradually reduce the use of nitrites in cured meats which called on the government to act based on the outcome of the Anses review.

Anses confirmed a 2018 World Health Organisation (WHO) report linking nitrates and nitrites ingested through processed meat to colorectal cancer.

The two substances are also suspected to be linked to other cancers such as ovarian, kidney, pancreas, and breast, Anses said, and hence advised cutting nitrates and nitrites to a minimum.

Nitrates (NO3-) and nitrites (NO2-) are compounds commonly found in a wide variety of foods, including vegetables such as spinach, carrot and beetroot.

Their salts are commonly used for curing meat and other perishable produce. They are added to food to preserve it and also help hinder the growth of harmful microorganisms, in particular Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium responsible for life-threatening botulism.

Processed meat manufacturers who use nitrites in products such as ham and sausages had dreaded a full ban on the chemicals, says Sky News.

The government however said a full ban was not justified after Anses study based on French people’s consumption habits,  revealed that 99% of the population did not exceed the permissible daily doses for all exposures to nitrites or nitrates.

Nevertheless, officials informed that they would present a plan to cut or eliminate the compounds in the autumn (September-November).

In 2018 the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said there was enough evidence of a causal link with bowel cancer – also known as colorectal cancer – to classify processed meats as group 1 carcinogens.

The agency’s experts concluded at the time that the risk of colorectal cancer increased by 18% for each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily.

According to Anses, processed meat consumption should be limited to an average of 150 grams per week, or about half the 280 grams consumed by French adults.

French processed meat producers group FICT stressed that the industry had already significantly reduced nitrite use and echoed Anses’ warning of counter-effects of reducing nitrite use without alternatives.

A lower use of nitrite reduces ham’s expiry date and increases the risk of salmonella in cured sausages.

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

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