Skip to main content

Nitrate-free Bacon and Ham

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support the production of nitrate-free bacon and ham in England.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register.

Nitrates are approved additives for use in pork products. The Government consider that existing levels of nitrates in food products are sufficiently protective of consumers. We are keen to support innovation in the food industry. Where individual companies use authorised alternatives, it is ultimately a commercial decision. The Government’s position is that any intervention should be restricted to areas where there are potential health and safety concerns based on available evidence.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, but I ask him: will the Government consider a review of regulation surrounding the use of nitrites in food production, following action taken in the French National Assembly to bring in legislation to minimise the use of nitrites in cured meats? Given the association of nitrites with a heightened risk of bowel cancer and that risk-free alternatives are widely available, would the Minister support a ban on the use of these chemicals in food production? When he is next in Northern Ireland, will he visit and tour factories beside me in Downpatrick that use innovation to produce nitrite-free food?

I think the company to which the noble Baroness refers produces something called Better Naked, which is a very worthy product and has a lot of innovative approaches. However, we are following the evidence on this: while the IARC published a report that said that processed meats can be carcinogenic in some cases, it does not make a direct link between the consumption of nitrates and nitrites in processed meats and colorectal cancer. We must be very mindful of the fact that these products in meats inhibit the growth of conditions such as clostridium botulinum, which can of course be fatal.

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that the pig industry is suffering a crisis that is unprecedented in its history? Will he join me in regretting the closure of the Vale of Mowbray facility at Leeming Bar—a 100 year-old facility involved in world-famous pork pies—with the loss of 171 jobs? What future does he see for the pig industry in this country going forward?

We want a good future for the pig industry, which has struggled for many years. As a Government we have stepped in where we can: we introduced more visas for butchers, private storage aid and the slaughter incentive payment scheme. Over 760 tonnes of pigmeat was put into the Government’s freezer storage plan, and this has ended, to the greatest extent, the backlog of pigmeat that was on farms.

My Lords, nitrates are found in many foods and can be harmless, but when used to cure bacon, which is then cooked and ingested, they can result in cancers. Nitrate-free bacon represents only about 10% of current sales. We do not need chemicals to produce delicious bacon. Why are the Government not encouraging other nitrate-free methods of production? Why would the public choose something that will harm them over a non-toxic alternative?

The public are informed about what is in their food by the labelling. Any nitrates or nitrites that are in food do appear on the label, so the public can make an informed choice. But I repeat what I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, about the importance of getting a balanced view: there is not a clear scientific link between colorectal cancers and these additives. Of course, we must be mindful that these additives protect consumers from conditions such as clostridium botulinum, which, I repeat, can be fatal.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Is the Minister aware that the vast majority of large pig producers in East Anglia set the highest possible standards and have also done all they possibly can to reduce run-off into watercourses? Surely, the challenge now is to make sure that smaller producers also follow these very high standards?

My noble friend is absolutely right: we want to see improved animal welfare standards, productivity and growth across the agricultural sector. In East Anglia, where the majority of our larger pork enterprises exist, huge strides have been taken. As of yesterday, the pork price was about £1.98 per kilo, which is considerably up on where it was last February, when it was around £1.37. This is a massive improvement, but many pig producers are still finding that their costs of production exceed their income. The Government are doing all we can to make sure that they are a profitable part of our farming sector.

If noble Lords will forgive me, I will take this opportunity to “do a Lord West”. The noble Lord seems to be able to get ships in everywhere. Can I get poverty in here? Is the Government going to bring home the bacon for the neediest among us?

The noble Lord is a genius for how he wove that in. He is absolutely on the same page as the Government, who are doing all we can to help household income across the board. Compared with previous decades, food has been a relatively small element of household expenditure, but it is nevertheless significant and it has been affected by inflation. But just concentrating on food is not enough; we need to look at the whole area of household expenditure, which of course includes energy and other elements.

My Lords, while we must not cause alarm by overstating any risks posed by nitrates and nitrites in bacon and other cured meats, we cannot deny that a growing body of evidence links these chemicals to various illnesses. Although we may not have an appetite for a full ban, many other countries are taking clear steps to limit the use of nitrates and nitrites in pork products. So does the Minister see any future reputational risks for UK products if other countries move forward and adopt more stringent measures and we do not?

We work very closely with the European agency that does this. It is quite wrong for Ministers to make sweeping decisions on this; it has to be on the basis of evidence. The Food Standards Agency is the lead on this, and it has given Ministers clear information. The 2015 IARC report stated that how cancer risk is increased by processed meat consumption is “not yet fully understood”. How processed meat is cooked—for example, the temperature—and some natural components in the meat itself could be contributing factors. As the noble Baroness said, other foods naturally have large amounts of nitrates: chard and broccoli are but two.