A World Health Organisation report from 2015 put processed meat in the same carcinogenic category as smoking and asbestos.

The health danger is posed by preservatives such as nitrites which, when heated in processed meat and then ingested, can increase the risk of bowel cancer.

However, four years after the report was published, Governments and regulators have failed to take any meaningful action.

An investigation by this newspaper revealed that most councils use so-called “nitro” processed meat – bacon, ham, gammon, corned beef and pepperoni – for school meals. The same is true for NHS boards and hospital food.

The Herald on Sunday is today launching a campaign to get rid of nitro-meats from schools and hospitals once and for all


HEALTH experts, politicians and industry figures have welcomed The Herald on Sunday’s call for the Scottish Government to ensure that school meals and hospital foods no longer contain cancer-causing chemicals.

Dr Aseem Malhotra, one of the most influential doctors in the country, has said the evidence linking nitrite-cured bacon and ham to cancer is “overwhelming”, adding that schools should stop serving “carcinogenic chemicals to children”.

Chris Elliott, a food safety professor Queen's University Belfast, said: "There is a large body of scientific evidence that shows human exposure to nitrates and nitrites present in processed meats is harmful to health. The link between consumption of nitrite-containing meat and colerectol cancer is strong."

And Denis Lynn, whose Finnebrogue firm makes nitrite-free bacon and ham, said Scotland has a “massive opportunity” to lead the way in shunning traditional processed meat.

READ MORE: Council leader backs nitrite-free meat

A bombshell report by the World Health Organisation found that eating processed meat can cause bowel cancer, with every 50-gram portion increasing the risk by 18%.

The findings were based on advice from international cancer experts and they placed processed meat, which includes staples such as bacon, ham and pepperoni, in the same category as tobacco smoking and asbestos.

The problem occurs when meat containing nitrites, a preservative which gives products their pinkish quality, is heated.

This process can produce carcinogenic “nitrosamines” in the stomach once the meat is eaten. Governments across the world have since faced calls to impose a special tax or dump nitrites altogether.


An investigation by this newspaper in February found that 23 of 32 councils, which are responsible for school meals, serve ham which include nitrites.

Eighteen local authorities confirmed that the preservative is present in other processed meats, such as bacon, pepperoni and corned beef. Patients in hospitals across Scotland are also being served nitro-meat.

Bowel cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women in Scotland, with approximately 3,700 new cases diagnosed in 2016. Ninety-five percent of cases occur in people aged over 50.

READ MORE: French author urges action

However, the diagnosis rates among younger Scots are also increasing. One child aged 10 to 14 was diagnosed between 1992 and 2012, but this increased to eight diagnoses between 2013 and 2016.

Following our revelations, Education Secretary John Swinney was urged to use an ongoing review of nutrition regulations to insist that school meals are nitrite-free. A Scottish Government spokesperson said at the time that consultation responses were being analysed “very carefully”. The SNP Government is now being called on to act.

Dr Malhotra, an award-winning cardiologist who has led the campaign against excess sugar consumption, told us: “The evidence linking nitrite-cured bacon and ham with cancer is overwhelming – and it is time for the industry to stop downplaying the risks. More than that, it is high time our schools stopped serving these carcinogenic chemicals to children.

“Scotland has often taken the lead on public health issues – and I hope the Scottish government will be the first to ban nitrites on school menus. It is a brewing public health scandal that these chemicals were ever being served up in the first place.”

Lynn, whose Finnebrogue business is based in Northern Ireland, supplies nitrite-free bacon and ham to Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

He said: “I knew all about nitrites about 13 or 14 years ago, and I didn’t want to produce any processed meat with nitrites in it.”

Lynn said he became determined to find a way to offer meat without the preservative, and a Spanish chemist helped make the technology.

“We took his technology to Queens University [in Belfast] and to a group of chemists, before we spent any money. After about six months of their research, they said ‘this works’.”

REVEALED: council school meals contain chemical linked to bowel cancer

Lynn said the discovery led to him building a factory at a “ridiculous cost”, but he said it was worth it given the subsequent orders from supermarkets. He said the Finnebrogue products taste the same.

On the presence of nitrites in school meals, he said: “I would not be feeding my kids ham or bacon with nitrites in it. If you look at the WHO report, the one thing that is really clear is it says children are at most risk because of their body weight, and the amount of ham and hot dogs that they are eating. They are at more risk than adults. I don’t think it is a good idea at all.

On whether schools should go nitrite-free, Lynn said: “Absolutely. Schools and hospitals. I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t. Eventually they will.”

He added: “There is a massive opportunity for Scotland to lead the world on this one.”


Image: Mr Lynn

Lynn is critical of food regulators for not taking a stronger stance in response to the WHO report, which was a global news story.

He accuses these bodies of being “disingenuous”, adding: “Because putting nitrites in is legal, they are having to defend them, saying they are perfectly safe. It’s almost like saying diesel cars are legal, so you have to defend diesel cars.”

The businessman also said he has offered to provide the technology to other food manufacturers, but these firms have not caught up yet.

“We have sat down with all the processors in Britain and offered to share this technology, provided that they declare that they will have a wish and a desire to go nitrite-free.”

Lynn also addressed the critics who downplay the risks of nitrites:

“How many people said smoking cigarettes was ok in the 1970s and 80s, and who paid them to say that? You don’t need them [nitrites] any more.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We expect schools and hospitals to serve healthy and nutritious food. We are currently considering responses to our recent consultation on nutritional school food standards that proposed introducing a maximum level for red and red processed meat, which will help to inform future changes to legislation.

“All local authorities have a duty to provide school meals that meet strict nutritional requirements, ensuring that pupils are offered balanced and nutritious school lunches. Healthy Eating In Schools guidance exists to help local authorities and schools meet the current requirements.

“We have led the rest of the UK by setting a minimum standard of hospital food, and we expect our NHS boards to meet those standards and focus on providing patients with meals that meet the desired quality requirements.

“All food served in Scottish hospitals must meet these national Food, Fluid and Nutritional Care Standards. This ensures that patients receive meals appropriate to their condition and the care they require. Where possible, we encourage the use of local produce.”


Scottish Labour health spokesperson Monica Lennon: "I am pleased to give my full support to the campaign by the Herald on Sunday calling on the SNP government to ensure that hospitals and schools do not use processed meats containing nitrites.

"Since the initial investigation by this paper earlier this year, which revealed that three quarters of Scottish schools continue to serve processed meats containing nitrites, I have been consistently calling on John Swinney and the Scottish Government to take action to remove nitrites from school meals.

"This should be a top public health priority for the Scottish Government. There is no reason why, knowing the risks, that these types of processed meats should continue to served up in our hospitals and schools."

Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “With experts warning that these chemicals can lead to an increased risk of bowel cancer, it seems clear to me that nitrites should be removed from school and hospital menus immediately.

“With Scotland having one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the Western world, the Scottish Government should be working with schools and health boards to achieve this goal and accomplish a clear public health benefit.

READ MORE: Council leader backs nitrite-free meat

Mark Ruskell, Scottish Greens food spokesperson, said: “Study after study is showing that we should all be cutting down on processed meat, both for our own health and the future health of the planet. Scrapping nitrite-containing processed meats in our public kitchens is a good start.

“Nitrite-free foods should be the first step of a transformation of all food served in public canteens from schools to hospitals and prisons."

Scottish Tory health education spokesman Brian Whittle said: “Scotland has the ability to produce plenty of food to supply our schools and hospitals without resorting to this particular processed meat. This campaign has my full support and, if successful, is something that could make a healthy difference for children and patients.”