The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently opened its draft opinion on nitrosamines to public consultation. Nitrosamines, some of which are genotoxic and carcinogenic, are chemical compounds that are found in food as the result of preparation and processing.

Nitrosamines can be found in a number of commodities including cured meat products, processed fish, cocoa, beer and other alcoholic beverages, cooked meat, processed vegetables, cereals, milk and dairy products, fermented foods, pickled foods, and spiced foods. Additionally, a 2017 EFSA evaluation of the safety of nitrites and nitrates suggests that nitrites may be linked to the formation of nitrosamines; however, the study did not have sufficient information to link high nitrosamine levels observed in meat to nitrites intentionally added to food.

According to Dr. Bettina Grasl-Kraupp, who chairs the working group that drafted the opinion, an EFSA assessment concluded that it is highly likely that the EU population’s exposure to nitrosamines exceeds levels that could pose health risks. This determination was made based on a margin of exposure (MOE) calculation. The MOE is a ratio of the dose at which measurable adverse effects are observed, and the level of exposure to a substance for a given population. A ratio above 10,000 indicates a low concern for consumers.

When assessing the public health risk of nitrosamines to the EU population, the EFSA working group considered the incidence of liver tumors in rodents as the key harmful effect. The group then applied the carcinogenic potency of the strongest nitrosamine to other nitrosamines found in food to generate a worst-case scenario.

From the public consultation on EFSA’s opinion on nitrosamines, EFSA hopes to reduce uncertainty in its calculation of exposure to the chemical compound through diet. The draft scientific opinion is open for public consultation until November 22, 2022.