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Charcuterie professionals hail new proposed law cutting nitrite-levels

Butchers say they have planned ahead and launched low nitrite-level products. The World Health Organization classes ingested nitrite as a potential cause of cancer

A charcuterie board with saucisson, and Italian cold cuts. Pic: JeniFoto / Shutterstock

Butcher owners and union members in France have told The Connexion they are happy with MPs’ support of progressively decreasing nitrite levels in charcuterie products.  

A majority of MPs approved yesterday (February 3) a first draft of a bill that aims to gradually reduce nitrite levels in prepared meat products - which includes saucisson, paté, confit. 

However, they removed the part of the bill that would have seen an all-out ban on nitrite use, starting from January 2023. 

Nitrite is commonly used in cured meats to give it a pink colour and add flavour. It also has antibacterial properties. However, a 2015 study by the World Health Organization classified ingested nitrite as a potential cause of cancer. 

Other studies have shown it to have health benefits. 

The proposed law in France encapsulates the battle between pro and anti-nitrite, both sides arguing contradicting studies on its health benefits for consumers. 

Fabien Castanier, representative of the Entreprises françaises de charcuterie traiteur (FICT), a federation grouping delicatessens in France, welcomed the proposal to reduce nitrite levels without banning it completely. 

“We are delighted science was put to the fore in this issue,” said Mr Castanier, suggesting MPs took into consideration the health benefits of nitrites, as shown by some studies. 

Mr Castanier said that countries like Italy and Germany have mandatory nitrite in cooked-ham.

“We are setting an example in Europe,” he told The Connexion, adding that France already has lower levels than most European countries. 

There is around 120mg/kilo of nitrites in charcuterie products in France, while European regulators have capped the limit at 150 mg/kilo. 

Some charcuterie products in France have around 100 mg/kilo, Mr Castanier said. 

He said he wanted to “preserve France’s rich charcuterie heritage”, estimating it to be about 450 different regional products. 

The bill was tabled by centrist MP Richard Ramos (Modem), who argued that nitrite can increase the risk of cancer. This point has been raised by ecologists and vegan communities and several studies. 

Mr Ramos qualified the vote as ‘historic’ in the Assemblée nationale yesterday, despite the fact that the plan to eliminate nitrites altogether was not approved. 

He likened his proposed law to that of a ‘humanist’ cause.

Mr Ramos, who is a homemade charcuterie maker himself, told MPs during the debate that “France produces the best pig in the world”. 

The bill will now be studied by France’s upper house, the Senate. 

93 MPs voted in favour of the proposal, with one MPs refusing and another abstaining. 

Read more: Plastic, additives, conversion therapy: This week in French parliament

Varying results in terms of taste

Butcher owners have told The Connexion they had already planned ahead of the proposed law by decreasing nitrite-levels in charcuterie products like paté, jambon or rillettes and observed mixed opinion from clients.

“In terms of taste, a lot of things change,” said Nathalie Foucaud, the owner of Nathalie’s butcher shop in Nice, adding changes in nitrite levels varied from product to product.

Ms Foucaud said clients reported a lack of taste for low nitrite-level patés, although the recipe was still the same. She said she now proposes two types of patés with different nitrite levels. 

But Ms Foucaud added the taste of low nitrite-level charcuterie was comparable to higher nitrite levels when the additif was replaced with vegetable bouillon or vegetable juice, like in the case of ham. 

She uses nitrite for higher conservation and to avoid the proliferation of bacteria. Nitrite also gives an enhanced pink colour instead of the traditional gray colour, which often puts clients off purchasing ham.

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