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Why is the EU coming after smoky bacon crisps?

Food producers ordered to phase out existing smoky flavourings for meats and crisps over health concerns

If arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage was still an MEP in the European Parliament, you would expect he might have a field day kicking up about a recent EU decision to ban certain types of smoke flavouring added to ham, rashers and crisps.

The portrayal of overreaching regulations from Brussels killing off the humble smoky bacon flavoured packet of crisps would have fitted quite neatly into his UK Independence Party (Ukip) narrative that sowed the seeds of Britain’s exit from the EU. The truth is a little more nuanced.

Rather than smoking meat over an open flame or in a smokehouse, today industrial food producers get the same smoky taste in meats, cheese, fish and snacks by adding a flavouring. The current process, which is recognised as being healthier than traditional smoking, involves purifying smoke and removing harmful components such as tar and ash, before the flavourings are added to food.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, last month withdrew authorisation for these flavourings, as health concerns about the additives were “either confirmed or can’t be ruled out”. It is important not to exaggerate that health warning; processed meats carry a higher risk of cancer.

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The smoke flavourings had previously been assessed in 2012 and later authorised for use for 10 years. As they were coming up for renewal the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was tasked with carrying out a fresh review.

A scientific panel examined eight of the flavourings currently authorised and published its findings late last year. In six cases it concluded there were concerns about “genotoxicity”, and in the two other cases it could not rule out potential safety concerns. Genotoxicity is essentially the likelihood of a given chemical being able to damage cells, which could increase the risk of someone developing cancer or other diseases.

Discussing the findings of the reviews, Wim Mennes, chair of the EU agency’s working group on flavourings, previously said it was “not possible” to define what a safe level of this kind of toxicity in food would be.

“In general, there may be an elevated risk of harmful effects when consuming genotoxic substances,” Mr Mennes wrote.

The level of risk depends on many other factors such as diet and genetics.

The EU agency had not directly investigated the likelihood of harmful effects arising from eating food produced with the smoky flavourings, he said.

“However, it is worth noting that EFSA takes a conservative approach to its assessments, meaning that we consider worst-case scenarios to estimate hazards and risks,” Mr Mennes said.

Ireland and other EU countries supported the commission’s move to ban the current flavourings, while at the same time lobbying for a transition period long enough to give the food industry time to adapt. The Irish food sector warned the Government that up to 300 products currently on the shelves could be impacted by the decision. Companies such as Kerry Group, a big player in the market, have complained that many factories further down the supply chain had invested heavily in equipment geared around adding the existing flavourings to food.

In the end producers were given two years to phase out the current method of adding smoke flavourings to crisps, sauces, soups and snacks, and five years for ham, fish and cheese.

What that means is industry will have a window to come up with a new method for adding the flavour to food, so don’t write off the smoky bacon crisp just yet.

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