The EC’s Directorate General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) has commissioned Civic Consulting of the Food Chain Evaluation Consortium to conduct a study into the use of nitrites in different categories of meat products.
The aim is to collect technical data about the need for nitrites and their use in different types of meat products. This will be used to decide whether a review of the current maximum levels of nitrites allowed is necessary.
Most dry cured hams use sodium or potassium nitrites along with salt (sodium chloride) as a treatment. The nitrites prevent bacterial growth and deliver a distinctive pink or red tinge to the meat, as well as imparting flavour. The combination of salt and nitrites can also affect shrinkage of the meat.
However, under certain cooking conditions, nitrites can form potentially dangerous carcinogens. Because of their toxicity, maximum permissible amounts are set for what may be added to meat products and the residual levels allowed. These are set out in Directive 2006/52/EC.
The maximum level of potassium nitrite that may be added to meat products is 150mg/kg, while that for sodium nitrite in sterilised meat products is100mg/kg.
Dependent on the product in question, the maximum residual levels of sodium nitrite allowed also varies. For example, a maximum of 175mg/kg is allowed in traditionally cured Wiltshire bacon; 100mg/kg in Wiltshire-cured ham; while just 50mg/kg is allowed in immersion-cured tongue.
Some food safety experts fear that excessive reduction of salt and nitrites could put consumers at risk through the growth of the potentially fatal pathogen Clostridium botulinum.
“Salt and nitrite are key variables in the production of ham and the result of reducing both at the same time is difficult to predict,” said the former director general of the Provision Trade Federation Clare Cheney. She was speaking in 2013, as calls were made by campaigners for further reductions of salt in ham.
The European Food Safety Authority is currently re-evaluating all permitted food additives, and is expected to publish its opinion on nitrite/nitrate by the end of 2015.
Meanwhile, food safety consultant Dr Jo Head has raised fears about potentially increasing incidents of food poisoning from Clostridium botulinum in the UK as the popularity of using sous vide (low-temperature vacuum) cooking in the home and 'home canning' of garden produce grows.
Her warning comes after a number of very serious food poisoning incidents associated with the pathogen were reported in the US over recent months.