Cooked ham

The prevalence of cooked ham, particularly in the diets of children, was a significant concern

The co-author of the World Health Organization’s 2015 paper linking processed meat consumption to cancer has slammed UK and EU policymakers for not doing enough to tackle the issue.

In a letter sent to health secretary Matt Hancock and European commissioner for health and food safety Vytenis Andriukaitis, Professor Denis Corpet of the University of Toulouse accused governments of ‘failing to act’ on the links between nitrites in processed meats and cancer.

Corpet is a member of the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that controversially put processed meat on its group 1 list of carcinogens – alongside smoking, asbestos, diesel fumes, mustard gas and plutonium – in a report that rocked the meat sector in October 2015.

His letter, seen by The Grocer, agreed with calls by UK parliamentarians, food scientists and medical exports last December that the government should launch a public awareness campaign on the health risks posed by nitrites in processed meats.

And in a withering attack on public health policy in the years after the IARC report was published, he described the failure of policymakers to tackle what had become a ‘public health scandal’ as a ‘dereliction of duty’.

IARC’s 2015 study and many others had proven nitrites were carcinogenic to humans, he claimed.

Public enemy? Meat category report 2018

But since its publication, there had been ‘an unsatisfactory response from those who hold the levers of power – and that includes your administrations in the EU and the UK‘, he suggested to Hancock and Andriukaitis.

A few companies – such as Nestlé in France with its Herta brand and the UK’s Finnebrogue – should be congratulated for creating nitrite-free products, he said. However, politicians had been ‘largely found missing in action’.

And while bacon had been in the headlines, Corpet warned the prevalence of cooked ham, particularly in the diets of children, was a significant concern.

Consumers ’unaware’ of risks

‘The vast majority of ham contains these cancer-causing chemicals, and the vast majority of parents are not aware of the risks,’ he warned, citing a recent ComRes survey of 2,051 UK parents, which found that 53% were ‘completely unaware’ of links between nitrite-cured meat and cancer.

‘It is surely the responsibility of your administrations to educate parents of the risks posed by ham in their children’s lunchbox, and to facilitate the growth of safer nitrite-free alternatives.’

Responding to the report, Baroness Walmsley, the vice-chair of parliament’s all-party group on cancer, said: “The WHO’s 2015 report incontrovertibility linked nitrite-cured processed meats to colorectal cancer.

“I share Professor Corpet’s frustration there has been such little response from our government - and we should all heed his warning that nitrites specifically in ham, eaten in such great quantities by children, pose a serious health risk. The food industry must remove these chemicals from ham urgently and cut the cancer risk from the school lunchbox. If it does not, government should stop sitting on its hands and intervene,” she added.

Poland’s ‘sick cow’ scandal is a reminder of EU food safety net

Elsewhere, professor Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel, spoke in defence of the use of nitrities when he pointed out the IARC had “recognised that no one food group causes cancer”, while the greater risk of exposure came from NOx gases in the traffic pollution of urban areas.

He added the European Food Safety Authority had established that consumer exposure to nitrates and nitrites, solely from food additives, was less than 5% of the overall exposure in food, and did not exceed safe levels. These salts are also found in high concentration in certain vegetables and through contamination of water.

Meanwhile, a Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said the government took advice from a range of expert agencies “who assure us red and processed meat, whether produced with nitrites and nitrates or without, can form part of varied and balanced diet when consumed within current NHS guidelines and alongside other healthy lifestyle choices”.