Meats: MEPs Look into Removing Nitrites

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Nitrites and nitrates are used for the preservation of processed meat.

A parliamentary mission was opened this Tuesday 3rd March 2020 by three deputies concerning nitrites, these disparaged conservatives added in the products of Meats.

What does it matter if his “nitrite tax” project was diverted this fall 2019? At the beginning of March, MP MoDem du Loiret, Richard Ramos, will perhaps take his revenge and reopen the debate. 

With his colleagues Barbara Bessot-Ballot and Michèle Crouzet, he is launching, as of Tuesday 3rd March 2020, a parliamentary fact-finding mission concerning the presence of nitrated salts in processed meats, especially those of cured meats, in order to keep them longer.

But whether it is potassium nitrite (E249), sodium nitrite (E250) and their cousins ​​potassium nitrate (E251) or sodium nitrate (E252), these food additives are dangerous for health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has indeed classified them as carcinogenic substances .

Also, for two months, the three rapporteur MEPs will be able to hear and cross the views of industry players and scientists during fifty hearings.

Objective: to shed light on these nitrites and potentially lead to an information report “to know where and how to act”, explains MP Barbara Bessot-Ballot, co-rapporteur of the mission.

A health risk

Faced with what he portrays as a “relentless media” against nitrites, Fabien Castanier, general delegate of the   French Federation of industrial cured pork butchers (FICT) , welcomes this “complete overview given to nitrites” and hopes that the floor will be given to stakeholders in the sector “with complete impartiality. ”

All the more, he recalls, that the use of additives has been authorized by the European health authorities, like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). And for good reason, their action preventing the proliferation of toxic microorganisms, in particular the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, at the origin of botulism. This rare paralytic disease, if left untreated, can be fatal.

“If we remove the nitrites, we frankly fear the return of botulism. For comparison, take the measles which has been absent for a long time from France, and which has returned with anti-vaccine campaigns. “

To which the deputy Barbara Bessot-Ballot opposes: “If the nitrites are only there to keep the pink colour of the ham, to format the taste, we eat less and therefore sell more, and if this does not present any health hazard, then why continue to use them? ”

A code of practice for charcuterie

Fabien Castanier invites, however, not to overinterpret the studies that exist on nitrites. The WHO classification, for example, does not assess the risk but the carcinogenic potential. It is then mainly a question of the dosage of the substance.

“The WHO is based on a study which was made on rats fed in an extreme way: for human comparison, they consumed the equivalent of six kilos of meat per day”, insists the representative of the FICT.

In addition, the Code of practice for charcuterie, the reference guide specific to France, maintains the thresholds for nitrites 20% below the European threshold, i.e. 120 milligrams per kilo against 150 milligrams per kilo defined by European regulations. “And we have proposed to the authorities to lower them further by 20% in the code of practice,” adds Fabien Castanier.

“There are nevertheless deaths due to nitrites, cases reported. Producers are already making nitrite-free and in recent years there has been a return to taste and quality of food. If we can do without it, why continue? “, Opposes Barbara Bessot-Pallot.

Alternatives for consumers

It is true that it is increasingly easy today to find in supermarkets processed pork products without nitrite, recognizable by their less pink colour and their lower conservation.

And behind this nitrite-free marketing, “there are between three and five years of study, research and scientific tests to meet this consumer demand while guaranteeing the health safety of these new products”, underlines Fabien Castanier.

“The problem is that SMEs and artisanal pork butchers, who represent 90% of the industry, do not necessarily have all the economic and scientific means to produce these new recipes,” added the FICT general delegate.

Hence the interest of the mission and its hearings, concludes the member for Haute-Saône. For this great defender of what she calls “healthy and sustainable food” in the face of “mass food”, it is above all not a question of “breaking the sector and devaluing it in front of other European countries which do not undergo the same rules. ”

“France remains the exemplary European country in terms of food quality. We have to stay the locomotive. Our citizens think that nitrites are dangerous, the industry tells us not, and scientists tell us both! We are simply asking for more transparency on this societal subject. “

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