PATIENTS in hospitals across Scotland are being served processed meat which contains a chemical linked to bowel cancer.

The ham, bacon and gammon on offer to the sick includes nitrites, a preservative experts believe should be taken out of meat as a matter of urgency.

Labour MSP Monica Lennon said: "The world’s leading scientists have been clear for a number of years of the danger nitrites in processed meats pose to the public. They should be nowhere near hospital menus, yet they are being served up to patients across Scotland every day.

SNP Health Secretary Jeane Freeman must now outline to Parliament what immediate steps she plans to take to remove nitrites from our NHS."

The call comes after The Herald on Sunday revealed nitrites are in the meat used by a majority of councils for school meals.

A wing of the World Health Organisation concluded in 2015 that consuming processed meat causes colorectal cancer, with a daily 50 gram portion increasing the risk by 18%.

One of the cancer-causing agents is “N-nitroso”, which forms during meat processing. If meat contains a preservative such as sodium nitrite, N-nitroso compounds occur. Governments across the world have been criticised for not acting on the report by ridding meat of nitrites.

A recent investigation by this newspaper found that twenty-three councils serve ham to pupils which includes nitrites as an ingredient. Around half said the preservative is in other cured meats.

Two other local authorities have since confirmed they also use so-called “nitro” ham, which takes it to 25 of 32 councils.


Image: Last week's Herald on Sunday splash

On this basis, we asked Scotland’s regional NHS boards the same questions. Some boards provided individual responses, but many referred the enquiry to an NHS quango that has responsibility for health service procurement.

Asked whether nitrites are part of the ham products served to patients in hospitals, a spokesperson for NHS National Services Scotland said:

“Yes. Hams, bacon and gammon are cured meats, and as part of their traditional recipes they would include 'sodium nitrite' and 'potassium nitrate' used as preservative.

“There are strict maximum permitted levels of nitrites that are used by the manufacturers in the ham, bacon or gammon product recipes and these are in line with current production guidelines and restrictions.”

Asked last week in Parliament whether he accepted the scientific evidence of a link between nitrites in processed meat and bowel cancer, and whether school meals should be free of the preservative, Education Secretary John Swinney appeared to duck the question by focusing on red meat: “There is very clear scientific evidence that suggests the level of red meat consumption that is appropriate and consistent with a balanced diet. That is the advice that the Scottish Government is following."

He added: “Back in 2008, we introduced regulations on that, which were regarded as world leading and which were updated in 2013. We are doing a similar exercise in response to the commitments that we gave in our manifesto in 2016 and to updated scientific advice that emerged in 2017.”

Scottish Greens MSP Alison Johnstone said: “We should aim to provide as much fresh, locally-sourced and unprocessed food as we can in all our hospitals, schools and prisons. The rollout of Food for Life would be a great example of investment in preventative health and will ensure better health and savings in our NHS.”

A spokesperson for Food Standards Scotland, the public-sector food body, said: “FSS acknowledges the well-evidenced link between the intake of high levels of red and processed meats, and increased risk of colorectal cancer. Potassium and sodium nitrates and nitrites, used for curing and preserving meats such as ham, salami and bacon, play an important role in food safety in helping reduce the growth of harmful micro-organisms, in particular Clostridium botulinum.

“Our advice is that people in Scotland should follow a balanced diet as set out in the Eatwell guide, which forms the basis of all Food Standards Scotland’s dietary advice. This includes limiting the intake of red and processed meat to no more than 70g per day on average. The current average for consumption in Scotland is estimated to be 56g per day, so well within the recommended limit to achieve the Scottish dietary goal of 70g per day.”