A leaked report found that preservatives that have been linked to cancer used in processed ham, bacon, and other meats may not need to be there.
Many meats sold in stores contain nitrites, which are used to preserve and can kill botulinum bacteria, which can cause botulism.
“Meat processing such as curing (e.g. by adding nitrates or nitrites) or smoking can lead to the formation of potentially cancer-causing (carcinogenic) chemicals such as N-nitroso-compounds (NOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH),” according to a Harvard University news release, citing a U.N. World Health Organization study.
Many brands don’t add nitrites or nitrates to ham, sausages, or bacon and use traditional processes. But many do.
Now, the British Meat Processors Association, which used consultant firm Campden, found that nitrites don’t kill the botulinum bacteria, reported The Guardian on March 23. The paper described it as a “confidential meat industry report.”
The British Meat Processors report concluded: “The results show that there is no change in levels of inoculated C botulinum over the curing process, which implies that the action of nitrite during curing is not toxic to C botulinum spores at levels of 150ppm [parts per million] ingoing nitrite and below.”
A U.K. politician described the report’s findings as “embarrassing” for the country’s meat industry.
“This leaked internal report is highly embarrassing for the processed meat industry and for the Food Standards Agency which have persistently peddled the myth that nitrites are essential to protect against botulism,” said Baroness Walmsley, the vice-chair of Parliament’s all-party group regarding cancer, according to the Guardian.
She added: “On the contrary, this report reveals nitrites are not a controlling factor against Clostridium botulinum. This evidence raises serious questions about why nitrites are being added to our bacon and ham.”
Another Parliament political, Tom Watson of the Labour Party, said there is “no longer any need for the processed meat industry to be adding cancer-causing nitrites,” adding that the chemicals should be removed “as soon as possible” from processed meats.
Does It Really Cause Cancer?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “research indicates that sodium nitrite can help prevent the growth of Listeria monocytogenes, an environmental bacterium that can cause illness in some at-risk populations,” according to Meatsafety.org.
Regarding the link to cancer, the website noted that “numerous scientific panels have evaluated sodium nitrite safety and the conclusions have essentially been the same: sodium nitrite is not only safe, it’s an essential public health tool because it has a proven track record of preventing botulism.”
“The National Toxicology Program, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, conducted a multi-year study to evaluate sodium nitrite’s safety. The study found that sodium nitrite was safe at the levels used.”
Meanwhile, according to Food Standards Australian and New Zealand (FSANZ), the preservatives are allowed “in small quantities in some foods that have a risk of being contaminated with harmful bacteria, when the risk of adverse health effects from botulism (caused by this bacteria) is much greater than the risk of developing cancer from small amounts of nitrates/nitrites,” says the Cancer Council.
Not Much Done?
British health secretary Matthew Hancock also noted that since the WHO published its study on nitrates and nitrites, not much has been done.
“Since the study was published and endorsed by the World Health Organisation four years ago, there has been an unsatisfactory response from those who hold the levers of power—and that includes your administrations in the EU and UK,” he said, reported The Guardian.
“In the years since, more evidence has exposed other wide-ranging health risks posed by nitrites. Yet, despite these facts, those responsible for ensuring the food consumers eat is as safe as it possibly can be have failed to act,” he continued.
“The work referenced is still being reviewed and is subject to confidentiality clauses. It also needs to be further peer-reviewed. The work should be seen as a demonstration of the industry’s total commitment to providing safe affordable and quality food to the consumer and leaked extracts without context are unhelpful. After proper scrutiny by peers this work will be presented to the Food Standards Agency to help shape future regulation.’’