Nitrites in bacon: MPs and scientists call for UK ban over cancer fears

Leading food scientists and a cross-party group of MPs and peers are urging UK ministers to ban the use of chemicals in bacon that heighten the risk of several forms of cancer.

They want the government to tell the pork industry to phase out the use of nitrites, which are used to cure bacon and give it its distinctive pink colour as a way of protecting public health.

The initiative is being led by the Conservative MP Dr Daniel Poulter, a former health minister under David Cameron who is also a practising NHS doctor.

About 90% of bacon sold in Britain is thought to contain nitrites, which research studies have linked to the development of bowel, breast and prostate cancers.

Poulter, the Labour MP Rosie Cooper, the SNP health spokesperson, Martyn Day, and the Liberal Democrat peer Lady Walmsley are among the signatories of a letter to Steve Barclay, the new health secretary, and Prof Sir Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical officer, about nitrites.

The move is also being supported by Prof Chris Elliott, the director of the Institute for Global Food Safety at Queen’s University in Belfast, who led the government’s investigation into the horsemeat scandal, and Prof Denis Corpet, an expert on the links between nitrites and cancer.

They want meat producers instead to use more natural alternatives to nitrites that perform the same role during curing.

Elliott said: “Nitrites are found in many foods and can be perfectly harmless. But when they are used to cure bacon, and that bacon is then cooked and ingested, they produce carcinogenic nitrosamines in the stomach.”

Banning them “should be relatively straightforward. We no longer need these chemicals to make the delicious bacon that so many of us love. If you can make bacon that tastes the same, looks the same and is just as affordable without the need for carcinogenic chemicals, why would anyone choose to use them?”

The letter says that: “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.”

It urges ministers to pass “legislation to ban the use of nitrites in food production and remove a potential health hazard that consumers are worryingly unaware of.” Such a move, it adds, “could see an avoidable cause of cancer taken out of circulation”.

“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.”

Some British meat producers already make nitrite-free bacon, including M&S, Waitrose and Better Naked.

The signatories want ministers to follow the example set by France, where many cured meats are now made without nitrites since its parliament in February passed a law to phase out their use.

The National Pig Association said the amount of nitrite additives used in the production of British pork are within safe limits approved by the European Food Standards Agency.

It has set up a committee of processors, retailers and academics to review the levels of both nitrites and nitrates in pork products and started collecting data.

“Processors have already made significant historical progress, and this year alone some processors have reduced their ingoing nitrites by up to 60%,” the trade association said.

A spokesperson for the British Meat Producers Association said: “The ongoing work to reduce nitrites in cured pork products is one that the British meat industry is actively engaged in.

“At every stage the UK processing industry strictly adheres to regulations set by the Food Standards Agency and keeps nitrite and nitrate levels within the legal limits.”

The Food Standards Agency hinted that a ban was unlikely. Rick Mumford, its head of science evidence and research, defended their use, saying: “Nitrites are important preservatives which hinder the growth of harmful organisms, in particular the bacteria responsible for botulism – which can be life-threatening.

“Because of the possible link between eating too much of red and processed meats and bowel cancer, the government recommends limiting consumption of these products to 70g per day.”