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MDH and Everest: Indian spices face global security concerns

  • By Soutik Biswas
  • Correspondent in India

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, MDH and Everest products are among the most popular in India and around the world

“For Indians, spices are like paints in a paint box” says Madhur Jaffrey, Indian actor turned food writer. “We get different shades of the same spice by making something spicy.”

In other words, you can roast the spices or grind them into powder. The diversity of their flavors is mind-boggling. Indian spices enhance the pickles and season the meat. They perfume flavors and street food. Hot spices energize local fruit drinks and add a zesty touch to fruits and salads.

Unsurprisingly, India has become a global powerhouse when it comes to spices. It exports more than 200 spices and value-added products to some 180 countries, worth $4 billion (£1 billion), according to the Spices Board of India. The domestic market alone is worth a whopping $10 billion, making it the largest consumer of spices in the world.

But now, concerns are emerging about the safety of these renowned spices. Last month, Singapore and Hong Kong halted sales of some spices produced by Indian companies MDH and Everest over suspected high levels of ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic pesticide.

That’s not all. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also investigating products from the two popular brands that may contain the pesticide, an FDA spokesperson told Reuters. A news agency analysis of U.S. regulatory data found that since 2021, an average of 14.5% of U.S. shipments of MDH spices have been rejected due to the presence of bacteria. Both brands insist on the safety of their products.

The European Union (EU) has also expressed its concerns after discovering the same carcinogenic substance in samples of chili peppers and peppercorns from India. Reports indicate that food regulators in the Maldives, Bangladesh and Australia have also launched investigations.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, Indian spices come in a range of varieties

India: world power of spices

  • India exports nearly $4 billion worth of spices, accounting for 12% of global spice exports.
  • Major spices exported include chili powder, cumin, turmeric, cardamom and spice blends.
  • Other notable exports include asafoetida, saffron, anise, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon.
  • China, USA and Bangladesh are the largest markets for Indian spices
  • Other important markets include the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

(Source: Spice Council, Global Trade Research Initiative)

This is obviously a worrying development. On the one hand, both brands are popular and reliable. Delhi-based MDH, an iconic 105-year-old family business, offers a range of over 60 blended and ground spices. Everest Food Products, 57, launched by a spice trader, claims to be “India’s largest manufacturer of pure and mixed spices”, exporting to over 80 countries. Bollywood superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan have been the brand ambassadors of Everest.

Certainly, this is not the first time that Indian spices have been contaminated. In 2014, biochemistry expert Ipsita Mazumdar tested popular spice brands in Kolkata that made chili, cumin, curry powder and garam masala. She found lead in the food coloring used to give spices bright orange or red hues. And most recently, in April, food and drug control authorities in Gujarat seized over 60,000 kg of adulterated spices – chilli powder, turmeric and coriander powder and pickle masala.

Legend, Delhi-based MDH, an iconic 105-year-old family business, offers a range of over 60 spices

So, are Indian spices safe? The federal government has asked all state governments to conduct quality testing. The Spices Board – which has five quality assessment laboratories – has issued guidelines for exporters to check the use of ethylene oxide. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is also testing samples.

India’s health ministry says the country has one of the strictest maximum residue limit (MRL) standards in the world, with pesticide MRLs varying by food product and determined by rigorous risk assessments. But something is clearly wrong: In 2022, the FDA highlighted insufficient cleanliness standards for sanitation, housing and equipment at a major Indian spice factory.

“India has been an exporter of spices for centuries. But this image has declined in recent years, due to lack of attention from the government. We do not yet know at what stage the contamination occurs. Oxide “ethylene is not used by farmers. It is most likely a post-harvest and post-processing residue,” says Narasimha Reddy Donthi, an independent researcher and environmental justice activist.

“It’s not just negative attention. Repeated cases of excessive residue can have a long-term effect. In the past, mango exports to the United States suffered for years because of residue of pesticides,” adds Mr. Reddy.

Delhi-based think tank Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI) estimates that recent quality problems could threaten half of India’s spice exports due to “cascading regulatory measures in many countries”.

If China questions the quality of Indian spices, more than half of India’s global exports could be affected, joining five other countries, GTRI said in a recent report. “The situation could get worse if the EU, which regularly rejects shipments of Indian spices on quality grounds, follows suit.”

For Western spice lovers, the origin of the spices in their food remains unclear.

“I don’t think most people know where their spices come from. I certainly don’t, and I use a lot of spices! I live a few blocks from Chicago’s main Indian shopping district, Devon Avenue, where I buy my spices I assume they come from India, but I’ve never looked into it,” Colleen Taylor Sen, an author specializing in Indian cuisine, told me.

Ultimately, experts say, India needs to fundamentally rethink its approach to food safety, prioritizing transparency, strong enforcement and clear communication to safeguard the integrity of its exports.

News Source : www.bbc.com
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