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Failure to tackle link between meat and cancer a ‘dereliction of duty’ by government, says top scientist

‘It is surely the responsibility of your administrations to educate parents of the risks posed by ham in their children’s lunchbox,’ says researcher behind WHO report

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Sunday 10 February 2019 01:00 GMT
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One of the top scientists behind a report showing the link between meat and cancer has accused the government of a “dereliction of duty” over its response to the findings.

Research suggests that nitrites in processed meats such as ham and bacon result in the production of substances that can cause bowel cancer.

But according to French researcher Professor Denis Corpet, the response by UK and EU politicians to the evidence laid out in a World Health Organisation (WHO) study outlining these concerns has been “unsatisfactory”.

In a letter to health secretary Matt Hancock and the EU commissioner for health and food safety, he urged officials to cut nitrites from meat.

The 2015 WHO report concluded they were a group one carcinogen, which could cause an additional 34,000 worldwide cancer deaths a year. This could equate to 6,600 bowel cancer cases in the UK annually.

“The failure of governments globally to engage on this public health scandal is nothing less than a dereliction of duty – both in regards to the number of cancer cases that could be avoided by ridding nitrites from processed meats – and in the potential to reduce the strain on increasingly stretched and underfunded public health services,” Professor Corpet wrote.

In December, a cross-party group of politicians and leading scientists called for a public awareness campaign to educate the public about the risk posed by the chemicals.

Professor Corpet, who co-authored the WHO report, supported their call, adding that particular focus should be given to publicising the risks of cooked ham because of its popularity with school children.

“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 agenda,” he wrote.

However, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) said nitrites are used as preservatives in certain meat products and legislation ensures they are kept at their lowest possible level.

The chemicals are added to food as preservatives to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum, which can be life-threatening.

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“The strict legislation we have in place ensures that levels of use are kept under review, and are at the lowest possible level to perform their required function,” said an FSA spokesperson.

“In 2017 the European Food Safety Authority re-evaluated their safety and concluded that in the worst case scenario, exposure is within safe levels for all population groups, except for a slight exceedance in children whose diet is high in all foods containing these additives.

“We continue to monitor developments including the international expert committee who are working on a comprehensive review of the worldwide consumption.”

Emma Shields, from Cancer Research UK, said nitrites were just one of the ways in which meat could increase cancer risk, with others including smoking and cooking products at high temperatures.

“Instead of scanning through every ingredient on the packet it’s much easier to simply cut down on the amount of processed meat you’re eating,” she said.

Responding to the letter, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring that all food products are as safe as possible.

“We take advice from a range of expert agencies, who assure us that red and processed meat, whether produced with the use of 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.”

Additional reporting by PA.

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