Safe levels for nitrites and nitrates added to food confirmed by EFSA

Pressure to limit or even ban the use of nitrates and nitrites in processed meat looks set to ease following two new reports from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Sodium and potassium salts of nitrite and nitrate (E 249-252) are authorised as food additives in the EU. They are used in meat, fish and cheese products to delay microbial growth, in particular to protect against botulism, as well as to keep meat red and enhance its flavour.

Following a re-evaluation of their safety, the EFSA have concluded that existing safe level of nitrites and nitrates used in processed food are sufficiently protective to consumers.

Currently the ADI for nitrates is 3.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg bw/day) and for nitrites the safe level has been re-established at 0.07 mg/kg bw/day.

Using a refined exposure assessment, experts estimated that consumer exposure to nitrate solely from food additives was less than 5% of the overall exposure to nitrate in food, and did not exceed the safe levels.

The agency however stated that when all dietary sources of nitrites and nitrates are considered (i.e. food additive, natural presence in foods and environmental contaminants), then for all age groups, the safe levels of acceptable daily intakes (ADIs) may be surpassed.

The EFSA have acknowledged that there are still some knowledge gaps to be filled. In particular, further studies would be useful on nitrate-nitrite conversion in human saliva and the resulting methaemoglobin formation, on nitrosamine formation in food products to which nitrites have been added, as well as on additional epidemiological evidence in humans.

EFSA has prepared a plain language summary explaining and contextualising its re-evaluation of nitrite and nitrate added to food, this document can be viewed here.

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