Carving ham in rue Daguerre, Paris.
Ever since the WHO officially declared that cured meats increased the risk of colon cancer, the French charcuterie industry has been in turmoil. Colon cancer is the most frequent cancer amongst non-smokers in France and the second biggest killer overall. Just 50g of cured meat consumed daily increases your chance of colon cancer by 18%, and French people really like charcuterie. There is a massive public health programme dedicated to early detection of the cancer, with free annual tests offered to anyone over 50. The problem is meats treated with potassium nitrate (saltpetre or E252) or sodium nitrite (E250). For decades the meat industry has been saying that these chemicals are necessary additions to protect the public from botulism.
Dry cured ham at a winter market.
This turns out to be a lie, and now everyone knows it's a lie. What they really do is speed up the curing process, ensure the meat retains an appetising pink colour, allow sloppy hygiene practice and cut production costs to increase profits. Modern French charcuterie is secretly optimised by chemicals, and an investigative journalist has spent the past five years working on blowing the whole story wide open.
Dry cured hams at Loches market.
Saltpetre made from wood ash was used on certain meats in medieval times. But the current problem started in Chicago in the early 20th century, where several entrepreneurs treated knackwursts and hams with modern refined nitrates which replaced the salt as a curing medium. Salt was relegated to the role of flavour. Their methods became globally ubiquitous because traditional charcuterie took longer to make. Nowadays, it's no good thinking that buying expensive charcuterie will save you -- nitrates and nitrites are everywhere. Not even organic or products with AOP certification are necessarily free from them.
Home cured bacon. You can see the brownish surface discolouration which is the telltale sign of a nitrate/nitrite free product.
There are two basic types of ham, dry cured and cooked. If you want to avoid nitrates and nitrites then dry cured ham is a good choice. Since 1993, the Parma ham producers have banned these chemicals, and their ham is widely available, often at an affordable price. A few other dry cured ham producers in Europe have followed suit. There has not been a single case of botulism in Parma ham since they went nitrate/nitrite free. On the other hand, if you want nitrate/nitrite free cooked ham, it is still difficult to find. A few artisanal producers make nitrate/nitrite free white ham, and the two biggest industrial producers, Herta and Fleury Michon, have recently introduced a nitrate free product.
Home curing bacon -- one way of ensuring it is nitrate/nitrite free.
With rillettes, if you buy artisanal products they will be nitrate/nitrite free, but the discount supermarket lines will contain them.
A typical plate of charcuterie -- rillettes (pork paste), boudin noir (black pudding), andouillette (chitterlings) and rillons (slow cooked pork belly).
Nitrates/nitrites are not permitted in other types of food, eg smoked salmon is nitrate/nitrite free in Europe.
A saucisson stand at Loches market.
Today there is no need to use nitrates/nitrites, and no possible justification given how carcinogenic they are known to be. Cochonneries or what?!
Saucisson at a winter market.
French manufacturers now face a real challenge, given that they've been caught out not upholding their gastronomic heritage. Do they have the will and the means to change their production so that their charcuterie is the real thing and their consumers not at risk from cancer? It's a case of the French agrifood business, with its 170 billion euro annual turnover, against the health of the population. The use of nitrates/nitrites is also pushing down the price the pig farmer gets. Many of the industrial manufacturers transforming the pork meat don't care about the quality of the raw meat, only the quantity and their margin.
Choucroute garni cooking, with various cured sausages.
If the consumers can be mobilised to choose nitrate/nitrite free products the industry will change, but at present nitrate/nitrite free is the preserve of the foodie elite and the hippies. The big brands have taken the hint, but it is very much tokenism as yet.
Herta cooked ham, also known as white ham or Paris ham, made without nitrates/nitrites.
In the course of writing this post I went to my local Maison des Producteurs in Loches and bought various transformed meats (garlic sausage, boudin blanc, rillettes) and none listed nitrates/nitrites in their ingredients. Maison des Producteurs boutiques are co-operatives of local farmers and artisanal producers, selling locally produced fruit, vegetables, meat, quiches and pies, cheese and other dairy products (including icecream), flour, pasta, wine, beer, jam and other stuff I've no doubt forgotten. On the other hand, at the supermarket, the one packet of ham (white or dry cured) that I was able to buy without nitrates/nitrites came from the biggest of the French industrial charcuterie brands and trumpeted its nitrite free status in big letters on the front of packet. I was also able to buy lardons (bacon bits) that were nitrate/nitrite free, made by Madrange. They had used beetroot juice to ensure the desirable pink colour in the meat.