My Department has consulted the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) which advises that apart from some Irish Total Diet Study analyses it carried out, it is unaware of any research carried out in Ireland on the health impacts of processed meats.
According to the most recent Irish Total Diet Study carried out 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 significant 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.
The FSAI further advises that the safety of nitrate has been comprehensively evaluated by the European Union and international scientific experts, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN / World Health Organisation (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives.
The Authority states that salts of nitrate and nitrite have been used for curing meat and other perishable produce for decades. They also help hinder the growth of certain harmful microorganisms. The use of additives in food is strictly regulated by EU legislation which requires that only authorised food additives may be used in the manufacture or preparation of foodstuffs. At EU level, all additives approved for use in current legislation have been evaluated by EFSA or previously by its predecessor, the EU Scientific Committee on Food. Two main nitrite and nitrate salt forms are allowed as food additives. These are sodium and potassium nitrite and sodium and potassium nitrate. Nitrates and nitrites are permitted for use in foods such as raw and processed meats, processed fish, and cheese.
The FSAI points to a number of assessments/evaluations of relevance, including:
- In June 2017, EFSA re-assessed the safety of nitrate as well as nitrite. EFSA concluded 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. EFSA, however, 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. Nitrites contribute to the formation of a group of compounds known as nitrosamines, some of which are carcinogenic. 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, 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 could give rise to potential health concerns but that more research was needed to address uncertainties and knowledge gaps in this area.
- In 2008, an assessment carried out by EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain identified vegetable consumption as the main origin of human exposure to nitrate and to a lesser extent water and other foods.
- On the 26th October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization, published the results of its evaluation of the risk of developing cancer from the consumption of red meat and processed meat. While processed meat was classified as Group 1, “carcinogenic to humans”, it is important to understand that the classification system indicates the weight of the evidence as to whether an agent is capable of causing cancer and does not measure the level of risk. Further explanation of the IARC report is available on the FSAI website at: https://www.fsai.ie/content.aspx?id=14285