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Nitrites in food: a law discussed in the National Assembly to prevent thousands of cancers


Nitrites are food additives used in deli meats to prevent the development of pathogenic bacteria (salmonella, listeria) and to avoid the production of toxins produced by Clostridium botulinum. Nitrites are also responsible for the pink color of cooked meats and allow the expression of aromatic notes. Problem: they react with meat iron (heme) to form compounds whose consumption is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, the second deadliest cancer after lung and stomach. For several years now, three organizations, Foodwatch NGO, Yuka and the League Against Cancer, campaign to demand a diet without added nitrites.

After a petition launched in 2019 to demand prohibition of these additives which present proven health risks, their latest action consists of reminding consumers that the bill to ban added nitrites and nitrates in food will be debated in the National Assembly on February 3, the day before World Cancer Day. Since November 2019, more than 362,000 people have signed this petition, which the three organizations submitted this Monday, January 17 to the Ministry of Health, in the presence of a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. They are now launching an online questioning tool so that citizens encourage their MPs to vote for the ban on nitrites added to the diet.

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What exactly does this bill provide?

“We only have a few days to convince the 577 MPs to vote in favor of this public health measure. This is a crucial issue: these additives can indeed contribute to the formation of potentially carcinogenic compounds. Thousands of cancers would thus be preventable. “, explain the three organizations. Supporting figures: 4,380 new cases of cancer per year (stomach and colon) are attributable to consumption of processed meat according to a report published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2018. This “proposal for a law relating to the progressive prohibition of nitrate additives in charcuterie products” provides for the prohibition of added nitrites and nitrates E249, E250, E251, E252 in processed meat.

These are respectively potassium nitrite, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, and this ban would take place in 2023 for raw meats and in 2025 for cooked meats (“white” ham for example). Until then, the bill provides that clear labeling on processed meat containing added nitrites or nitrates specifying: “Contains added nitrites or nitrates which may promote colorectal cancer” as well as the quantity of additives used. “Advertising for this type of product must also include a public health message on the subject. “, note the organizations which indicate that the plant extracts rich in nitrates used as additives are also affected.

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For Karine Jacquemart, director of Foodwatch: “hundreds of thousands of citizens no longer want to be exposed to a potential cancer risk linked to added nitrites in their diet. Manufacturers know very well how to make nitrite-free. Julie Chapon of Yuka adds that “it is urgent that consumers no longer have to worry and scan products to check the presence of these additives”. Note that currently, the High Council of Public Health recommends limiting the consumption of red meat to less than 500g per week and that of charcuterie to less than 150g per week. But according to the 2014-2016 Esteban study, two-thirds of French people consume too many charcuterie compared to recommendations, and a third consume too much red meat.

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