Ethylene Oxide in Indian Food Exports: A Cause for Concern


In a concerning development, European Union (EU) food safety authorities have detected ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic chemical, in 527 food items originating from India between September 2020 and April 2024. This finding raises serious questions about the safety of Indian food exports and highlights the need for stricter regulations and improved food safety practices.

Types of Products Affected

The majority of contaminated products (313) were nuts and sesame seeds, followed by herbs and spices (60), dietetic foods (48), and other food categories (34) as reported by the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). This raises concerns across various dietary needs, with even health-focused options like dietetic foods being impacted.

Ethylene Oxide and Health Risks

Ethylene oxide is primarily used as a fumigant to sterilize medical equipment and control pests in agricultural products. However, its use in food processing is banned in the EU due to its carcinogenic properties. Chronic exposure to ethylene oxide has been linked to an increased risk of various cancers, including lymphoma and leukemia.

Impact and Actions Taken

The EU authorities took swift action to address the contamination. They rejected 87 consignments at the border, preventing them from entering the European market. Additionally, many of the contaminated products that had already entered circulation were removed from shelves.

Indian Response and Concerns

The Indian government has acknowledged the issue and is reportedly investigating the source of the contamination. However, some reports suggest a lack of proactive measures to address the problem. The presence of the chemical in even organically labelled products (54 out of 527) raises further concerns about the effectiveness of existing organic certification processes in India.

Conclusion: A Call for Action

The discovery of ethylene oxide in Indian food exports is a wake-up call for both Indian authorities and exporters. Here are some key takeaways and areas for action:

  • Strengthening Food Safety Regulations: India needs to establish and enforce stricter regulations on the use of fumigants like ethylene oxide in food processing. This includes setting clear maximum residue levels (MRLs) for ethylene oxide in food products.
  • Improved Monitoring and Testing: There’s a need for robust food safety infrastructure with improved testing facilities and stricter enforcement mechanisms. Regular monitoring of food products at various stages of the supply chain is crucial.
  • Transparency and Consumer Awareness: Transparency and open communication with consumers are essential. Indian authorities should provide clear information about the affected products and the steps being taken to ensure food safety. Additionally, consumer awareness campaigns can educate people about the risks associated with ethylene oxide and encourage them to choose products with proper certifications.
  • Collaboration between India and EU: The EU and Indian authorities need to collaborate effectively to identify the root cause of the contamination and develop joint strategies to prevent future occurrences. This could involve sharing information on best practices for food safety and fumigation techniques.

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