Growing evidence to ban the use of nitrites from our meat

Posted: 1 February 2023 | | 2 comments

Professor Chris Elliott lays out his case for getting nitrites banned from use in meat production in the UK.

chris' corner

When it comes to the food safety and fraud issues that I get involved in I’m like a dog with a bone. I think you need this attitude to bring about change as there are always substantial obstacles and barriers from those who really don’t want to see change for whatever reason.

The potential to ban nitrites from meat production is one of these cases. In one of my previous articles for New Food: “A coalition call to ban nitrites from our meat”, I outlined the case to do this and now, six months later, I thought it would be helpful to review where things currently sit and highlight some new and compelling evidence to support the ban.

Protecting against deadly botulism growth in meat

When I have previously discussed this with members of the UK meat industry, there has always been a reticence to take some bold steps to make the UK a nitrite-free zone. The claims were always that they were needed to protect against deadly botulism growth in meat.

Numerous food safety experts at home and aboard supported this view and have questioned me for supporting a move that could be potentially dangerous, if not deadly. However, my response to this has always been ‘follow the evidence’.

I was given access to results of an independent study that did not support the claim. Indeed, if one believes what was written in the Guardian (which I personally do) a couple of years ago, the meat industry knew of the report: Revealed: no need to add cancer-risk nitrites to ham. The report that was referenced in this article, to the best of my knowledge, was never made public. Maybe now is the time for this to happen in order to bring more clarity to the topic?

Nitrates in the news

The past six months has seen a large amount of activity on the nitrites front. In July 2022 a report from the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety confirmed the 2015 findings of the World Health Organization that identified nitrites in processed meat as a cause of bowel cancer. In response to this the French Government has pledged to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of nitrites in food production. 

Then, in October 2022, the European Food Safety Agency published a new draft opinion, following a re-evaluation of their 2017 report (on which the UK Government’s position is currently based). The new report states that it is highly likely that exposure to nitrosamines (the product formed when nitrites are exposed to high temperatures) exceeds levels which could pose ‘health concerns’ in all age groups in Europe.

I’m reliably informed that discussions about introducing much tougher legislation on nitrite levels in meat are being held in Brussels currently. But with the UK being in a new era of ‘freedoms’, does it really want to be left behind in making food safer?


Elliot has been informed that there are currently “discussions about introducing much tougher legislation on nitrite levels in meat being held in Brussels”

The most recent piece of evidence on the risks of nitrites in meat comes from a study I was involved in at Queen’s University, Belfast. This was led by one of my friends and colleagues Professor Brian Green. The study, recently published in the Nature journal, Science of Food, showed that mice fed a diet of processed meat containing nitrites developed 75 percent more cancerous tumours in the duodenum than mice fed nitrite-free pork.

In addition, we also found that mice fed nitrite-cured pork developed 82 percent more tumours in the colon compared with the control group. Thus, the evidence base for a ban keeps mounting but for how long can this be ignored?

Next steps for nitrates

So what are the next steps in getting nitrites banned from use in meat production in the UK? Based on the robust body of new evidence I’ve included in this article, I have written to Steve Barclay, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Wes Streeting, his shadow in the Labour Party. I  provided them both with the new evidence base and requested a meeting to discuss how the UK public can be better protected from a dangerous chemical in food which has absolutely no benefit in terms of consumer protection.

If I am able to obtain any responses and organise a meeting, rest assured I will inform New Food readers how it goes.  

2 responses to “Growing evidence to ban the use of nitrites from our meat”

  1. Duncan Perry says:

    I think that the reference to both nitrites and nitrates in this article for the reader is misleading. Nitrites are the chemical of concern which are stricly regulated with maximum permissable levels which are tested by companies using these as preservatives on a frequent basis. I also think the generalisation of meat is misleading also. We are talking about cured hams only not the general meat industry and this has not been clarified in the article. I share the concern about unsafe additives, but we must report on these accurately so we do not create concern on uncured meat that is perfectly safe.

  2. Julie Smith says:

    What is the difference between meat with added nitrates and nitrites and foods that have naturally occurring nitrates such as spinach?

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