France said it intends to cut the use of nitrites in food after the national health agency confirmed they raise the risk of cancer, falling short of a full ban feared by processed meat makers who use it in products such as ham and sausages.
The move follows a French parliament bill in February aiming to gradually reduce the use of nitrites in cured meats, calling on the government to act based on the outcome of a review and recommendations by health agency Anses.
Anses’ review, published on Tuesday, confirmed a World Health Organization report in 2018 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, also referring to other scientific findings, as it advised cutting nitrates and nitrites to a minimum.
Nitrate is used as a fertilizer in farming while nitrite is widely used in processed meats to extend their shelf life and gives boiled ham its pink colour.
The government said a ban was not justified after Anses said that, based on French people’s consumption habits, 99% of the population did not exceed the permissible daily doses for all exposures to nitrites or nitrates.
However, it would present a plan to parliament in the autumn aimed at cutting or eliminating them when possible, it said.
Processed meat consumption should be limited to an average of 150 grams (5.3 oz) per week, Anses said, 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.