India spice exports face sharp drop over ethylene oxide concerns

In 2023-24, India’s spice exports totaled £3.34 billion, accounting for 12 per cent of global spice exports.

Indian spices at the market in Anjuna in Northern Goa. (Photo credit: iStock)

By: Vivek Mishra

The Federation of Indian Spice Stakeholders (FISS) said on Friday that India’s spice exports could decline by nearly 40 per cent in FY25 if the issue of ethylene oxide (EtO) contamination in export-bound spices is not resolved promptly. This follows the banning of popular brands MDH and Everest in Hong Kong and Singapore due to the detection of carcinogenic EtO, leading to a mandatory recall.

In 2023-24, India’s spice exports totaled £3.34 billion, accounting for 12 per cent of global spice exports.

“Many exporters have orders that have been halted due to this issue. Our estimate suggests spice exports could be affected by 40 per cent this year if the problem is not resolved quickly,” said Tejas Gandhi, Secretary of FISS, which represents nearly 600 spice traders, exporters, and farmers.

Addressing the media, FISS Chairman Ashwin Nayak said there is misinformation about EtO, which is widely used worldwide. “EtO is not a pesticide sprayed on crops. It is a gaseous agent used by approved organizations to control harmful microbiological and bacterial elements in spices, such as E. coli and aflatoxins. This technique is widely used globally,” Nayak said.

“India’s spice exports are valued at £3.15 billion. We urge the Indian government to take immediate steps to ensure that export shipments are not stopped due to myths about EtO treatment. We also urge the Spice Board to test samples from each shipment to meet every country’s criteria,” he added.

FISS Co-Chairman U Karthik noted that most countries have their own maximum residue limit (MRL) for EtO. For example, the US allows £5.51 ppm (parts per million), while the European Union allows £0.08 ppm. “EtO evaporates at 10 degrees centigrade and is not harmful to humans. It is also used for sterilizing medical equipment. While some countries have set an MRL limit, many have not. The Spice Board is contacting these countries to establish a limit,” Karthik said.

Gandhi mentioned that the EtO issue is not as serious as portrayed in the media. “When Hong Kong has not set any MRL limit, how can they claim EtO exceeded the prescribed limit? Although steam sterilisation is an alternative to EtO, it is much more expensive. EtO costs Rs 3 per kg, while steam sterilization costs nearly Rs 15 per kg. Even the US has units that conduct EtO sterilisation for spices,” he said.