A board member of Scotland’s food standards body has been caught up in a conflict of interest row after she queried an expert who called for a cancer-linked chemical to be removed from processed meat.

Dr Carrie Ruxton, who said she was “confused” by a professor’s criticism of a lack of Government action on the issue, has financial ties to the meat industry.

A growing number of experts have called for nitrites, which are used as a preservative, to be removed from processed meat over a link to bowel cancer.

A 2015 report by an agency of the World Health Organisation stated that this type of meat caused colorectal cancer and concluded that one of the carcinogenic agents is “N-nitroso”, which can form if meat contains nitrites.

In a letter to the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Professor Denis Corpet, who co-authored the WHO report, wrote: “The failure of governments globally to engage on this public health scandal is nothing less than a dereliction of duty – both in regards to the number of cancer cases that could be avoided by ridding nitrites from processed meats – and in the potential to reduce the strain on increasingly stretched and underfunded public health services."

Professor Corpet’s letter was followed by an exchange on social media between Dr Ruxton, who sits on the board of Food Standards Scotland (FSS) and journalist Guillaume Coudray, who coined the phrase “nitro-meat”.

Dr Ruxton, who is a dietician rather than a medical doctor, wrote that she was “confused” because “inconsistent observational data on relative risk” and “hazard identification” were being positioned as “justification" for public health action.

She added that her doubts were based on literature such as a report by the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.

Asked by Coudray whether she was saying this report claimed no link between processed meat and bowel cancer, she said: “The report says there is an association but noted the inconsistencies in observational studies and concluded that no advice could be given on amounts to eat.”

She later added: “My point is the the evidence is insufficiently compelling to recommend removal [of processed meat] from the diet.”

According to Ruxton’s FSS public register of interest, she has a number of paid links to industry.

A declaration from last year included payment from the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP) for providing “expert comment to journalists” and advice to Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board staff on nutrition and science. MAP is supported by an “unrestricted educational grant” from the red meat industry.

She also chaired a committee on meat and cancer, as well as writing an internal report, for Clitravi, which is a body for the meat processing industry in the EU.

Another declaration, which focused on the period between October 2017 to January last year, flagged up work for MAP.

In 2017, she declared a fee for a “keynote speech” at the International Congress on Meat Science and Technology. Ruxton was reappointed as an FSS board member this year.

Labour MSP Monica Lennon said: "FSS plays a vital role in protecting and improving our country's public health. It is staggering that when an expert says there is a clear link between nitrites in processed meat and colorectal cancer a member of FSS’s board would tweet in the way Dr Ruxton did.

"Many people will question whether it is appropriate for her to sit on the board, given her fees from the meat industry. FSS must now explain if they support the scientific experts who want meat to be nitrite-free, or the opinions expressed by their meat industry funded board member.”

Responding to this newspaper, Dr Ruxton denied having a conflict by saying her register of interests are regularly declared and she is obliged to mention any relevant interests at FSS board meetings.

She said she accepts nitrites in processed meat are “linked with the risk of bowel cancer”, but said her tweets pointed out that this is “mostly based” on “observational evidence at high intakes”.

She added: “I do support the removal of nitrites from processed meats when effective food preservation alternatives are commercially available. At present, I understand this is not the case. Nitrites perform an important food safety function and their levels in foods are regulated under EU law.”

A spokesperson for FSS said: “Dr Carrie Ruxton is a Board member of Food Standards Scotland and also sits on the Meat Advisory Panel. We do not believe that an individual who works in other areas of the food industry should automatically be barred from being a member of the Board.

“Equally, Food Standards Scotland is clear that all members of the Board declare all of their interests in the Register of Interests. Against the background of Carrie Ruxton’s declarations, had her comments been made as a Food Standards Scotland Board member, this could have given rise to a conflict of interest.”