A notification issued by the European Commission (EC) rapid alert system for food and feed on April 7 that unauthorised pesticide residue ethylene oxide had been found in salsa dips from Mexico, caught the Indian exporting fraternity by surprise.

The reason for the surprise was that the EC has termed ethylene oxide a “pesticide residue” from its earlier classification as a “fumigant”. It has made it mandatory for European members to take and test food samples for the chemical from 2023 to 2026. This year, dried bean, rye and rice shipments will be analysed for presence of ethylene oxide.

In 2024, wheat will be examined and in 2025, barley and oats will come under scrutiny. In 2026, dried beans, rye and brown rice will be tested for the chemical. EU member States will have to provide sampling data every year for this testing. 

Sesame shipments

“Terming ethylene oxide as a pesticide residue means agricultural products being exported to the European Union will now be mandatorily tested,” said trade analyst S Chandrasekaran. 

The EC had issued alerts against a number of products for the presence of ethylene oxide. These products had to be recalled.

Exports of sesame (til/gingelly) from India were held up at European ports on the detection of ethylene oxide. The chemical was also found in other foods such as spices, herbs and bean gum, which is used as a thickening agent in ice creams.  

The EC then issued a clarification that the presence of ethylene oxide is not authorised in food additives, irrespective of where the food had originated. 

The commission set the maximum residue limit at 0.1 mg per kg. This includes 2-chloro-ethanol, which is expressed as ethylene oxide in certain additives that are treated with the substance. The European Commission has banned the use of ethylene oxide for disinfecting foodstuff. 

Zero tolerance

The EC’s new norm on ethylene oxide will now cover calcium carbonate shipments from India, vanilla extract from the US, locust bean from Morocco and Malaysia and tomato ketchup and sauces from Mexico.

The latest change is in line with the European Union’s zero tolerance for products containing substances that can harm humans. If ethylene oxide is detected in a raw material, European companies will have to test the finished product, too, for the chemical’s presence. 

In India, ethylene oxide has been found in some spices. During 2021, several shipments of sesame had to be recalled due to the presence of ethylene oxide. 

The European Commission has classified ethylene oxide as carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic for reproduction. The EC has fixed the limit on the chemical’s presence in 2003, based on the recommendations of the Scientific Committee on Food Safety.