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Will nitrates in ham get the chop? France edges closer to reducing levels in cured meats

February 12, 2022
Consumer Packaged Goods

France has approved a new bill with targets to gradually cut down the use of nitrates in cured meats. The nation’s parliament has ordered a review of the potential health risks presented by these additives, which is to be completed by the French national health agency Anses before the end of June.

“There are no specific targets at the moment, so everything will be decided after Anses releases its report. Following that, policymakers will begin implementing decrees,” Camille Dorioz, campaigns manager at Foodwatch France, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

“Even if this law delays a decision on the issue, it commits the government and parliament to take decisions in coming months,” remark French food quality app Yuka, League Against Cancer and the NGO Foodwatch in a joint statement.

“Mobilization has paid off. We have put the subject of the banning of these additives on the political agenda, whatever the delicatessen lobbies may say. This law unfortunately postpones the final decision, but it commits the Government and elected officials to make these decisions in the coming months.”

Nitrate salts are conventionally applied to processed cured meats such as ham, bacon and sausages, which extend the shelf life of these food items. These compounds are also responsible for giving boiled ham it pink color.

French parliament considers marketing ban for nitrates
The “nitrates law” was adopted by France’s National Assembly on February 3, the eve of World Cancer Day.

This was hailed as a “real step forward” by the organizations Foodwatch, the League against Cancer and Yuka, who have been campaigning for more than two years to ban the additives E249, E250, E251 and E252 in European F&B.

The groups have been mobilizing on this subject since November 2019 and have collected more than 363,000 signatures.

Within 12 months after Anses’ opinion, Parliament will issue a decree that will set a “trajectory for reducing the maximum dose of nitro additives with regard to proven risks for human health.”

This decree may also set a list of nitrates products that are subject to a marketing ban.

Within 18 months after the publication of the law, another decree will outline the specific procedures for labeling products containing nitrates, in addition to defining special advertising conditions.

Trouble with switching out nitrates
According to research by the World Health Organization, the curing processes – adding nitrates or smoking meats – can lead to the formation of potentially cancer-causing chemicals.

Taste and nutrition giant Kerry previously argued that COVID-19 is causing nitrates to be increasingly viewed as “no-no” ingredients.

But Fabien Castanier, director of cured meat industry federation FICT, stresses that nitrates are deemed as safe additives under current French and European legislation.

He further supports that the French charcuterie industry currently uses less nitrate– around 110 mg/kg – than the currently permitted 150 mg/kg levels under EU legislation.

The industry representative also argues that almost 300 small to medium-size French companies in the sector would have trouble manufacturing their products without the use of nitrates, because removing this chemical preservative would cut down shelf life and raise the bacterial infection risk.

What are the alternatives?
Clean label alternatives are in high demand as high-nitrate diets have been linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancers.

Currently, Castanier details that 90% of all cured meats include nitrates but some of the biggest firms, such as Nestlé-owned Herta or Fleury Michon are already experimenting with nitrate-free products.

Last September, a UK study found that resveratrol taken from Japanese knotweed holds potential for replacing the nitrate preservative in cured meats. The botanical is a fast-growing plant often feared by homeowners for its ability to invade and take over gardens. The researchers used an extract produced by Italy-based Nutraceutica.

France’s roadmap to nitrates reduction
The new bill was proposed by the MP of France’s Modem party – which is part of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling coalition – the new bill stopped short of an outright ban from 2023, but has set a timetable for reducing nitrates use.

Anses will publish a report about the health risks of nitrate by end June, after which the government will have 12 months to outline a trajectory for reducing or phasing out the preservative.

Implementation of the new law would fall to a new government following presidential elections this coming April.

By Benjamin Ferrer


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