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Why are Indian spices facing the heat? | Explained


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Ethylene Oxide (ETO)

Mains level: Health concerns related to ETO

Why in the News?

Many have announced an investigation into possible contamination of spice mixes sold by top Indian brands like MDH and Everest Masalas.

  • Delhi-based think tank Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI) in a recent note held, “With nearly $700 million worth of exports to critical markets at stake.”

What is Ethylene Oxide (ETO)?

  • Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas at temperature above 51.3 F (10.7 C). When used directly in the gaseous form or in non-explosive gaseous mixtures with nitrogen or carbon dioxide, ETO serves as a disinfectant, fumigant, sterilizing agent, and insecticide.
  • ETO has also been reported to be produced from natural sources. In certain plants, ethylene (a natural plant growth regulator) is degraded to ethylene oxide. ETO ia also generated from water – logged soil, manure and sewage sludge.

What are the health concerns?

  • ETO Usage and Contamination: ETO is a prohibited pesticide that is used as a sterilizing agent in the food industry, including spices.
  • Toxicity and Carcinogenicity: Residues of ETO can lead to the formation of toxic and carcinogenic compounds, such as ethylene glycol. Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide is associated with various health risks, including cancers like lymphoma and leukemia.
  • Previous Incidents: Indian-made products, including cough syrups, have been linked to incidents where ethylene glycol contamination resulted in fatalities, particularly among children in countries like Cameroon, Gambia, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan.
  • Regulatory Response: The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has banned the use of ETO and has flagged contamination issues in Indian spices in the past. A recent EFSA report highlighted carcinogenic chemicals found in numerous products linked to India.

Which countries have flagged safety of Indian spices?

  • Hong Kong: Suspended the sale of three MDH spice blends and Everest fish curry masala due to high levels of ethylene oxide (ETO).
  • Singapore: Ordered a recall of Everest spice mix, stating that ethylene oxide makes the spices unfit for human consumption and poses a cancer risk.
  • United States: The FDA is aware of the reports and is gathering additional information about the situation.
  • Maldives: The Maldives FDA has suspended the sale of spices produced by Everest and MDH.
  • Australia: Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand is working with international counterparts to understand the issue and determine if further action is required.
  • Bangladesh: Gathering information on companies importing possibly contaminated products and plans to carry out examinations if necessary.

What are the operational challenges faced by the Indian government?

  • Lack of Standardized Protocol System: India’s diverse food landscape, the lack of standardised monitoring and intentional food fraud may prevent manufacturers from efficiently tracing ingredients and assessing potential risks.
  • Lack of Database: Many companies struggle to trace ingredients, especially raw agricultural commodities, due to the lack of standardised recordkeeping and intentional food fraud. This prevents manufacturers from assessing potential risks, compromising the safety of the entire food supply chain.
  • Traceability is particularly challenging for small and medium sized businesses with limited resources.

What steps is Food and Drug Administration (FDA) taking to improve the safety of spices?

  • Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA): The FSMA rules address both domestically produced and imported foods.
    • For example, the preventive controls rule requires food facilities, including those that manufacture spices, to conduct a hazard analysis, identify hazards reasonably likely to occur, and establish preventive controls for such hazards.
  • Spices Board and its Measures: The Spices Board announced mandatory testing of consignments shipped to Singapore and Hong Kong, and gathering technical details and analytical reports from relevant food and drug agencies.
  • Issuance of Guidelines: A circular dated April 30 contains guidelines to exporters on preventing ETO contamination, developed after discussions with the Indian spice industry.
    • Measures include voluntary testing of ETO during raw and final stages, storing ETO treated products separately, and incorporating critical control points in hazard analysis.

Way forward:

  • Enhanced Regulatory Oversight: Strengthen regulatory bodies such as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to ensure strict adherence to food safety standards and regulations. Implement regular inspections, audits, and enforcement actions to monitor compliance with safety guidelines.
  • Improved Traceability Systems: Develop and implement robust traceability systems across the food supply chain to track the origin and movement of ingredients and products. Utilize technology such as blockchain and RFID tagging to enhance transparency and accountability.

Mains question for practice 

Q Explain the health risks associated with ethylene oxide (ETO) contamination in spices.

Mains PYQ

Q Elaborate the policy taken by the Government of India to meet the challenges of the food processing sector. (UPSC IAS/2019)

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