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Food Safety Standards

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 2 July 2019

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Questions (449)

Maureen O'Sullivan


449. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Health the position regarding the health hazards of nitrates in food; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27973/19]

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Written answers (Question to Health)

I am advised by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) that Nitrate is found naturally in vegetables. It can also enter the food chain as an environmental contaminant in water, due to its use in intensive farming methods, livestock production and sewage discharge. In humans, nitrite and nitrate from food are rapidly absorbed by the body and, for the most part, excreted as nitrate. Some of the nitrate absorbed by the body is converted in the body into nitrite, the absorption of which can lead, in excessive quantities, to a reduced ability of red blood cells to bind and transport oxygen through the body. Nitrite in food (and nitrate converted to nitrite in the body) may also contribute to the formation of a group of compounds known as nitrosamines, some of which are carcinogenic.

For decades the salts of nitrate and nitrite have been added to food to preserve it and they also help hinder the growth of harmful microorganisms. The use of additives in food is strictly controlled by EU legislation. They must undergo a comprehensive scientific safety assessment before being authorised for use in the manufacture or preparation of foodstuffs. The natural occurrence of nitrate in foods such as vegetables is regulated by maximum levels set out in EU Regulation 1881/2006 as amended.

The FSAI has indicated that the safety of nitrate has been comprehensively evaluated by European Union (EU) and International Scientific Experts, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), an international expert scientific committee that is administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.

In a re-evaluation on the safety of nitrate, EFSA concluded in 2017 that the exposure to nitrate resulting from its use as a food additive did not lead to an exceedance of the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) and was estimated to be less than 5% of the overall exposure to nitrate in food from all dietary sources. However, EFSA noted that total dietary exposure to nitrate from all sources (food additives, natural presence and contamination) exceeded the current ADI in all European populations considered. Similar conclusions were drawn concerning dietary exposure to nitrites from all sources.

An assessment carried out by EFSA in 2008 on nitrates present in food as contaminants compared the risk and benefits of exposure to nitrate from vegetables and concluded that the beneficial effects outweighed potential health risks from exposure to nitrate through vegetables, and that the average European consumer would not exceed the ADI.

In 2010, a further opinion was delivered on the potential health risks for infants and young children from naturally occurring nitrate in leafy vegetables, which concluded that levels of nitrate in these vegetables do not pose a health concern for most children.

As previously noted, nitrites, including when used as food additives, contribute to the formation of nitrosamines. Applying some worst-case scenario assumptions, EFSA concluded that the formation of nitrosamines in the body from use of food additives at approved levels was of low concern for human health. However, EFSA further noted that nitrite unintentionally present in meat products from other sources such as environmental contamination can also contribute to the formation of nitrosamines. EFSA concluded that these levels of nitrosamines might give rise to potential health concerns but that more research was needed to address uncertainties and knowledge gaps that may exist in this area.

According to the most recent Irish Total Diet study performed by the FSAI between 2012 to 2014, exposure estimates to both nitrite and nitrate in adults and children resident in Ireland were found to be below the respective health-based guidance values. The study identified vegetables as the most important dietary contributor for nitrate, and ham as the only dietary contributor for nitrite. The study concluded that exposure to nitrates and nitrites from food is not of concern.