Good and Bad of “Lap-mei”(Chinese Cured Meat)



Autumn is the season for enjoying “Lap-mei”!


“Lap-mei” (Chinese cured meat) is a type of traditional Chinese food that remains a “good choice for gifts and for one’s own consumption” until today. Chinese cured meat, cured sausages and cured duck are the common “Lap-mei” items found in Macao, and similar food additives are added to them during their preparation. Of the various food additives used, nitrates and nitrites have caused public concern, for there have been a lot of articles about the carcinogenicity of nitrates and nitrites circulating online. So, do nitrates and nitrites really cause cancer? How does the Municipal Affairs Bureau (IAM) regulate the safety of Chinese cured meat to ensure those sold on the market are safe for consumption?


Do nitrates and nitrites really cause cancer?

In the evaluation of carcinogenic hazards to humans performed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), it is revealed that after consumption of food containing nitrates or nitrites, intragastric nitrosation takes place in our body, which is a process capable of generating N-nitroso compounds (listed in Group 2A - probable carcinogens). But when we eat “Lap-mei”, many other components found in “Lap-mei” are also broken down during our metabolism besides the ingested nitrates or nitrites. Since governments worldwide have established limits on the use of nitrates and nitrites in food, the actual intake of these chemicals through food is very low. Moreover, the ingested amounts of nitrates or nitrites that will be generated into carcinogenic substances are still to be ascertained. So, we should not be overly worried.


What makes it necessary to add nitrates or nitrites to “Lap-mei”?

Why are nitrates or nitrites added to meat products? These food additives are added to maintain the bright red colour of meat products, serving as colour retention agents in food, and give meat products a unique flavour. Most importantly, they can inhibit bacterial growth, especially that of clostridium botulinum.


Clostridium botulinum is a spore-forming bacterium, which can produce spores in food when the food is in unfavourable conditions (dryness, high osmotic pressure, and absence of oxygen). When the food contaminated with spores of clostridium botulinum experience a slight change in its environmental conditions, such as being stored at an inappropriate temperature, the spores germinate into clostridium botulinum and may release botulinum toxin. A very small amount of botulinum toxin can be lethal and is one of the most deadly toxins. So, it is deemed necessary to add nitrates or nitrites to meat products to inhibit the growth of clostridium botulinum in them.


How does the Macao Government regulate and monitor the safety of “Lap-mei”?

To ensure the safety of food produced and sold in Macao, the Administrative Regulation No. 7/2019 “Standards for Use of Preservatives and Antioxidants in Food” established the maximum levels at which sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, potassium nitrite, and sodium nitrite can be used in meat and meat products. At import level, in accordance with Law No. 3/2016 “Amendment to Law No. 7/2003 ‘External Trade Law’” and Chief Executive Writ of Instruction No. 487/2016, business establishments that intend to import food of animal origin (including “Lap-mei”) are required to submit an import declaration for the food to the competent authorities and subject the food to mandatory hygiene inspection. Only those products that have passed the inspection can be released onto the market.


At the market level, the Department of Food Safety of IAM performs routine inspection and random sampling of food products on sale on the market for testing to ensure the safety and quality of food products sold in Macao. In the routine food surveillance conducted during the third quarter of 2021, the randomly sampled food products for testing included meat products, such as Chinese cured sausages and cured meat. No abnormalities were detected in these tested cured meat products. A total of 861 food samples were collected for testing and the overall satisfactory rate was 99.5%. For details of the routine food surveillance, the public can access the following link of the website of “Food Safety Information” of IAM:


How to eat “Lap-mei” without worries?

As long as members of the public legally purchase “Lap-mei” from reputable and licensed shops in Macao, refrain from eating too much “Lap-mei” and maintain a balanced diet, they need not be overly worried about the ingestion of nitrates or nitrites.