Data on occurrence of nitrate, nitrite and N-nitrosocompounds in food and drinking water, and on total dietary intakes are reviewed. Metabolic, toxicological and epidemiological studies are surveyed and the implications with respect to safety evaluation are addressed. It is concluded that, on the basis of recent long-term animal studies and of clinical experience in man, the current Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) allocated to nitrate by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives of 0-5 mg/kg body weight/day (expressed as sodium nitrate) might be increased to 0-25 mg/kg body weight/day. Based on similar criteria, the ADI for nitrite would be 0-0.1 mg/kg body weight/day (expressed as sodium nitrite). In view of the known carcinogenicity of N-nitrosocompounds, exposure to these compounds in food should be minimized by appropriate technological means, such as lowering the nitrite concentration in preserved foods to the minimum required to ensure microbiological safety and use of inhibitors of nitrosation like alpha-tocopherol or ascorbic acid. Further work is needed to define the minimal levels of nitrite in foods needed to inhibit outgrowth of Clostridium botulinum and toxin production.