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HomeCountryIndiaEfforts to Dethrone Reigning King of SPICES?

Efforts to Dethrone Reigning King of SPICES?

Let’s unravel this latest controversy propped up against one of India’s key exports.

As per the Spices Board of India the domestic spice market alone is valued at an astounding $10 billion, positioning India as the world’s largest consumer of spices. With over 200 spices and value-added products exported to approximately 180 countries, India has undeniably risen as a global spice powerhouse, with exports totaling $4 billion. What’s at stake here is of monumental value, one is the sheer economic worth of spices exports and second, and undeniably the most important, is the reputation of the country’s exports. Let’s unravel this latest controversy propped up against one of India’s key exports.

India, celebrated globally as a spice powerhouse, is now confronting mounting concerns regarding the safety of its esteemed spice exports. In the recent past, Singapore and Hong Kong suspended sales of select spices from Indian brands MDH and Everest due to suspected elevated levels of ethylene oxide (EtO), a cancer-causing pesticide. Furthermore, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has initiated investigations into products from these brands for potential pesticide contamination.

Even Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), the statutory authority in the Australian government health portfolio responsible for developing food standards and New Zealand Food Safety (NZFS), the New Zealand government body responsible for food safety, have collected samples of Indian spices for investigations. Analysis by Reuters reveals that since 2021, an average of 14.5 per cent of US shipments of MDH spices were rejected due to bacterial presence. Despite these challenges, both brands assert the safety of their products.

The European Union (EU) has also sounded the alarm after detecting ethylene oxide in samples of Indian chilli peppers and peppercorns. Similar concerns have prompted regulatory investigations in the Maldives and Bangladesh.

Nepal on May 18 banned the sale and import of certain spice-mix products manufactured by Indian brands over alleged quality concerns. Four spice-mix products by MDH and Everest were banned in the Himalayan nation due to suspected ethylene oxide(EtO )contamination, according to the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control in Nepal.

This controversy is particularly unsettling given the stature of the affected brands. MDH, a 105-year-old family-run firm based in Delhi, boasts a diverse range of over 60 blended spices. Everest Food Products, established by a spice trader over five decades ago, prides itself on being India’s largest manufacturer of pure and blended spices, with exports to over 80 countries. Notably, Bollywood icons Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan have served as Everest’s brand ambassadors.

Not the first time

However, this isn’t the first instance where Indian spices have encountered contamination issues. In 2014, Ipsita Mazumdar, a biochemistry expert, conducted tests on popular spice brands in Kolkata that produce chilli, cumin, curry powder, and garam masala. She discovered lead in the food colouring used to enhance the spices’ vibrant orange or red hues. More recently, in April, food and drug control authorities in Gujarat seized over 60,000 kg of adulterated spices, including chilli powder, turmeric, coriander powder, and pickle masala. These past incidents underscore systemic challenges in ensuring food safety.

In response to these concerns, Indian authorities have taken measures to address the issue. The Spices Board has issued guidelines to exporters to monitor ethylene oxide usage, while the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is conducting sample testing.

Despite these efforts, questions persist regarding the root cause of contamination and the efficacy of regulatory oversight. Narasimha Reddy Donthi, an independent researcher and environmental justice activist, remarked, “India has been a spice exporter for centuries. However, this image has been diminishing in recent years due to the government’s inadequate attention. We have yet to determine at which stage the contamination is occurring. Ethylene oxide is not used by farmers; it is most likely a post-harvest, post-processing residue.”

Donthi emphasises the necessity for comprehensive investigations and increased government attention to protect India’s reputation in the spice industry. The repercussions extend beyond regulatory actions, potentially affecting India’s spice exports significantly. The Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI) of  the Spices Board cautions that escalating regulatory measures could endanger up to half of India’s spice exports, especially if major markets like China harbour doubts.

For consumers in the West, this controversy highlights the critical importance of traceability and transparency in the spice supply chain. In response to these challenges, industry experts advocate for a holistic approach to food safety, stressing the importance of transparency, rigorous enforcement, and clear communication.

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