France Considers Ban on Nitrates in Cured Meats — Will Charcuterie Ever Be the Same?

The French parliament has delayed its decision on whether to ban the traditional use of nitrates in cured meats.

Charcuterie board
Photo: Getty Images

Many of the foods we love aren't, strictly speaking, healthy. Too much sugar: bad. Too much alcohol: bad. It's even been said that toasting your bread too much increases the risk of cancer. But at what point should governments intervene to protect us? Do we need to ban burnt toast or would a public health campaign suffice? (For the record, that's what the British government did.)

Processed meats are a Group 1 carcinogen: The World Health Organization gave them that designation in 2015, slotting them in alongside alcohol and cigarettes (and plutonium!). The use of nitrates and nitrites, a traditional curing method, is believed to be a contributor to this health risk. So in the interest of public health, on Wednesday, France moved one step closer to curbing the use of these compounds, despite continued objections from members of the gastronomic community.

Yesterday, the Economic Affairs Committee of France's National Assembly unanimously adopted a "bill relating to the consumption of charcuterie products containing nitro additives," reported the French paper Le Monde. For now, however, charcuterie producers can breathe a sigh of relief.

The legislation, which has been discussed in France for over a year, originally featured language proposing "a progressive ban," but instead, the final bill kicks the can down the road, holding off on any decision until France's National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety (ANSES) issues the findings of their long-delayed report, now said to be arriving this June.

A ban is still possible, but Le Monde explains that the approved bill used broader language, stipulating that, once the report has been released, the government has one year to set "a dose reduction trajectory for the maximum number of nitro additives."

"We would have been much more comfortable this morning if the opinion of ANSES had been delivered in the timetable that we had initially set ourselves," French Minister of Agriculture Julien Denormandie was quoted as saying

Nitrates help preserve meats, extending their shelf life and killing bacteria. They also give meats their pinkish hue and, some say, impart a distinct flavor. Their use is so commonplace in making charcuterie that, in the lead up to yesterday's decision, the French trade group FICT stated that banning nitrates "would condemn most traditional charcuterie specialties that the whole world envies, such as our traditional dry sausage," according to FoodNavigator.

Back in 2020, when a nitrate ban was first brought before parliament, Richard Ramos — an MP with the Democratic Movement party — stated, "Ham is a health danger. We know that now. Nitrite salts in charcuterie kill French people," according to The Times, referencing findings that a diet of processed meat was responsible for about 4,000 cases of stomach and colon cancer each year.

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