The health agency Anses “confirms the existence of an association between the risk of colorectal cancer and exposure to nitrates and nitrites” in an opinion published Tuesday morning after several months of work.

His analysis “joins the classification of the International Agency for Research on Cancer” of the World Health Organization (WHO), which in 2015 classified processed meat, in particular cold cuts, as carcinogenic.

Historically, pork butchers have used nitrated components to extend the shelf life of products and prevent the development of pathogenic bacteria that cause botulism in particular, a serious neurological condition that has been largely forgotten due to health progress. These are also the components that give the naturally gray ham its pink color.

ANSES “recommends reducing the exposure of the population to nitrates and nitrites by proactive measures by limiting exposure through food”.

A few hours after the publication of this notice, the government announced an “action plan” aimed at reducing or eliminating the use of nitro additives “in all food products where this is possible without health impact”, according to a press release from the Ministries of Health and Agriculture.

A first meeting with the technical actors of the sectors will be organized before the end of July and the action plan presented “in the fall” to Parliament.

The government recalls that in France, the charcuterie sectors are already below the thresholds authorized at European level (maximum incorporation rate of 150 mg per kilogram), with a maximum of 120 mg per kilo”.

In its report, ANSES considers it possible to go further, while taking care of the balance between risk and health protection, nitrate additives making it possible to fight against the development of diseases (salmonellosis, listeriosis, botulism). This reduction would be possible for cooked ham, for example, by shortening the use-by dates.

Even before the government’s announcement, the Foodwatch association, the League against cancer and the Yuka application had called on the public authorities to “take their responsibilities” and “ban these additives”.

The French Federation of Butchers (Fict) described ANSES’s opinion as “balanced”. “We are the country in the world where we use the least additives, with Denmark. We have already started to lower the level of additives and we will continue to lower it”, declared to AFP its president Bernard Vallat. .

In February, the National Assembly had voted the principle of a “lower trajectory” of the maximum doses of nitro additives in charcuterie.

– “Hidden nitrites” –

While major manufacturers have already launched ranges of so-called “nitrite-free” ham, the agency warns against substitute solutions based on “plant extracts” or “vegetable broths”: “This does not does not constitute a real alternative insofar as (these substituents) naturally contain nitrates which, under the effect of bacteria, are converted into nitrites”.

“These so-called no added nitrite or zero nitrite products therefore contain hidden nitrates and nitrites”, underlines the agency.

ANSES also notes a paradox: the existence of a link between the consumption of processed meats and the risk of cancer, even though the “admissible daily doses” (ADI), of 150 grams of charcuterie per week in France, are respected .

The ADI are “defined separately for each of these substances, while the biochemical mechanisms involved constitute a series of transformations towards nitrosated compounds”, underlines the opinion.

Clearly: nitrates, naturally present in soils, can see their concentration increased by agricultural activities (fertilizers, livestock effluents). They are found in the plants we eat and the water we drink.

In our mouth, under the effect of bacterial enzymes, ingested nitrates are transformed into nitrites. And the latter, unstable, can, when they are present in excess, generate the formation of “nitrosated compounds”, “known for their genotoxic and carcinogenic nature”.

ANSES therefore recommends continuing research, to “establish the toxicological reference value taking into account co-exposure” to additives, but also to launch new epidemiological studies to improve knowledge of the link with the risk of different cancers. . In the meantime, the agency advises limiting its consumption of charcuterie to 150 grams per week and calls for a diversified diet.