EU food agency sounds alarm over cancer-causing food substances
A new opinion from the EU food safety agency (EFSA) has found 10 nitrosamine substances, found in many processed foods, to be carcinogenic, concluding current exposure levels are a ‘health concern’ for all ages.
The assessment, which was released on Tuesday (28 March), focuses on the public health risk related to the presence of so-called ‘nitrosamines’ in food.
These chemical compounds form in food during its preparation and processing and can be found in a range of food products, including cured meat products, processed fish and beer, as well as dairy products, soy sauce, and fermented, pickled and spiced foods.
However, the most important food group contributing to nitrosamines exposure is meat and meat products.
The new assessment, which was carried out at the behest of the European Commission, concluded that 10 nitrosamines found in food are carcinogenic, meaning that they cause cancer, and genotoxic, meaning they may damage DNA.
“To ensure a high level of consumer protection, we created a worst-case scenario for our risk assessment,” Dieter Schrenk, Chair of EFSA’s panel on contaminants in the food chain, explained in a statement.
As such, all nitrosamines found in food were assumed to have the “same potential to cause cancer in humans as the most harmful nitrosamine, although that is unlikely,” he added.
The conclusions were drawn after animal studies found an incidence of liver tumours in rodents to be the “most critical health effect”, he added.
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The EU agency carried out its assessment by evaluating the potential harm caused by nitrosamines to humans and animals and assessing consumer exposure.
It also consulted external stakeholders on its draft opinion and the ‘numerous’ comments received were considered when finalising it, according to a statement from the organisation.
Based on the conclusions, Schrenk said that, for all age groups across the EU population, “the level of exposure to nitrosamines in food raises a health concern”.
However, the assessment emphasised that there are knowledge gaps about the presence of nitrosamines in specific food categories and that there is a lack of data on a number of important food categories.
The opinion concludes that balancing the diet with a wider variety of foods could be a key step to help consumers to reduce their intake of nitrosamines.
EFSA’s opinion will now be shared with the European Commission, which will discuss with national authorities what risk management measures are needed.
The opinion comes just as the debate over the use of nitrates and nitrites – commonly used as a preservative for curing meat and other perishable produce – heats up.
For example, on 27 March, French agriculture minister Marc Fesneau presented an action plan to reduce the use of these preservatives in charcuterie.
“Between 2023 and 2024, the maximum nitrite content of several mass-produced charcuterie products (cooked hams, lardons, fresh sausages, dry sausages, etc.) will be significantly reduced,” a statement from the French agricultural ministry reads, adding that “longer-term deadlines are also set”.
“The subject of nitrites is absolutely key because it impacts citizens’ nutrition, but also more widely the societal demand for quality food,” Fesneau said in a statement.