Nitrites in food – where is Health Canada?

Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor,

The latest case of Romaine lettuce contaminated with e. coli bacteria cleared the grocery store shelves and left us bereft of that essential salad ingredient. The Californian source was tracked, and hopefully dealt with. Health Canada issued recalls for just three of the six Canadian provinces affected.

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Health Canada is the federal agency charged with ensuring food safety for all Canadians through its branch, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. One has to wonder just how much they are concerned about their mandate of keeping Canada’s food supply safe, versus keeping Canada’s food industry happy, and minimizing regulation. There are many instances where the agency is late to the table, lukewarm in any regulations it does pass, and frequently missing in action altogether.

There are issues with much more serious consequences than a limited quantity of tainted lettuce. Indeed, there are some very dubious practices which the food industry engages in, which directly threaten the health of those who consume their products.

One such issue is raised in a recent investigative piece by The Guardian (29 Dec. 2018) which highlights the growing body of evidence of the health risks of using nitrites to cure meat products like bacon and ham. When ingested the nitrites produce nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. A coalition of eminent U.K. scientists and parliamentarians is likening this situation to that of the tobacco industry, when the real truth came out about the risks associated with tobacco smoke. Professor Christopher Elliot (Director of the Institute of Global Food Safety) says the evidence indicates these chemicals result in 6,600 bowel cancer cases each year in the UK (Four times the death toll from car accidents).

A 2015 report by the World Health Organisation linked processed meats to 34,000 cases of colorectal cancer worldwide. Nitrites are also linked to increased breast cancer risk, and as well the onset of mental health problems.

Nitrites give bacon and ham their nice pink colour. Some companies have however been using substitutes for curing and preserving these products for years, so we know there are alternatives to nitrites.

The weight of evidence tells us that nitrites used to cure meats are causing multiple serious health problems in substantial numbers. Surely this is a wake-up call to our own Regulator that they need to move quickly to verify the safety of the substitutes, draft new regulations to outlaw nitrites, and in so doing reduce the cancers and other health risks associated with these foods. Does Health Canada have a plan?

It seems that the real truth about the dangers of nitrites in bacon and ham is at hand, and Health Canada needs to come out of hiding and take some action. Winston Churchill reminds us: “Truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it, ignorance may deride it, malice may distort it, but there it is”.

Jon Crowson, Hamiota.

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