Scientists and MPs urge ban on cancer-causing nitrite used in bacon production

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AUTHOR: Molly Long
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A cross-party group of MPs and several leading food scientists are calling on the Government to ban the use of nitrite chemicals in bacon production.

Nitrites are used by food manufacturers to cure bacon to give it its pink colour and enhance flavour, and about 90% of all bacon sold in Britain is thought to contain nitrites.

However, despite being a widely used ingredient, since 2015 cured food containing nitrites has been classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation.

This is because nitrites can react with the amines and amides found in our body to form N-nitroso compounds – which are known to cause certain cancers, including bowel, breast and prostate cancers.  

Tory MP Dr Daniel Poulter is leading the charge to ban the use of the chemicals in the country’s meat. Dr Poulter was formerly Health Minister under David Cameron and is a practising NHS doctor.

Dr Poulter and several other politicians, including Labour MP Rosie Cooper, Liberal Democrat peer Lady Walmsley and SNP spokesperson Martyn Day, have signed a letter to newly-appointed Health Secretary Steve Barclay and Government Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty.

Professor Chris Elliot, the Director of the Institute for Global Food Safety at Queen’s University Belfast, and Professor Denis Corpet, who has researched the connection between nitrites and cancer, have also supported the letter.

The letter urges a ban on nitrites, in favour of natural alternatives. There are several brands already sold on the UK market which do not use nitrites, including Better Naked, and own brand bacon and gammon from Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.

The Guardian reports the letter as saying: “Studies carried out by the World Health Organization, UK, US and European universities, and even the UK Government’s own agencies suggest a link between the consumption of nitrite-cured meat and bowel cancer, the cause of over 10,000 deaths in the UK every year.

“Tasty and affordable nitrite-free meat products are now widely available on supermarket shelves across the UK, meaning that the great British public need never fear being deprived of the bacon sandwich.

“Given advances in food manufacturing mean we can get the familiar colour and flavour of our bacon without nitrites, there is simply no good reason not to do this.”

The banning of nitrites in certain meats has been a hot political topic for some time now, and a ban has already been enacted by the French government. A law passed in February 2022 will see nitrites phased out of the manufacturing process of many cured meats in the country.

Industry associations, including the British Meat Producers Association and National Pig Association have said the amount of nitrites used in the curing process in Britain are within safe limits – but add that most manufacturers working within the sector are looking to reduce their nitrite usage anyway.

Find out how NHS Doctor Saliha Mahmood-Ahmed is fighting to ensure good, nutritious food is used as a preventative medicine in this Food Matters Live podcast:

Saliha Mahmood-Ahmed – from MasterChef winner to NHS campaigner

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