The level of consumer exposure to nitrosamines, which are compounds that can form in food during preparation and processing, raise a public health concern, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The agency conducted a risk assessment on the presence of nitrosamines in food, and found ten nitrosamines present in food to be carcinogenic and genotoxic.

Based on animal studies, EFSA considered the incidence of liver tumors in rodents as the most critical health effect of nitrosamine exposure.

EFSA’s risk assessment involved evaluating the potential harm caused by nitrosamines to humans and animals and assessing consumer exposure in a worst-case scenario, assuming that all nitrosamines found in food had the same potential to cause cancer in humans as the most harmful nitrosamine (although this scenario is unlikely). The scientists concluded that, for all age groups across the EU population, the level of exposure to nitrosamines in food raises a health concern.

Nitrosamines have been found in foods such as cured meat products, processed fish, cocoa, and beer and other alcoholic beverages. The most significant food group contributing to consumer nitrosamines exposure is meat and meat products. Nitrosamines may also be present in other foods including processed vegetables, cereals, milk and dairy products, or fermented, pickled and spiced foods.

Knowledge gaps exist about the presence of nitrosamines in specific food categories, however. EFSA states that having a well-rounded diet that includes a wide variety of foods could help consumers to reduce their intake of nitrosamines.

EFSA consulted stakeholders in its draft scientific opinion on nitrosamines exposure. The opinion will be shared with the European Commission, and national authorities will discuss the possibility of executing risk management measures.