All spice consignments exported to Singapore and Hong Kong, including ready-to-eat products, will mandatorily need to be tested for Ethylene Oxide (ETO) contamination and given clearance by the Spices Board from May 6, 2024.

The decision taken by the Spices Board, the regulatory body under the Commerce Department responsible for promoting spice exports from the country, comes days after Hong Kong and Singapore recalled some spices exported by two top Indian brands due to alleged ETO contamination, bringing Indian spices under the scanner of standards bodies in key markets.

“As a proactive measure to address the concerns regarding ETO contamination in spice products, the Spices Board, in consultation with the spice industry, has decided to commence mandatory ETO testing in spice consignments exported to Singapore and Hong Kong. The maximum residue limit (MRL) for ETO in spices as per the Singapore Food Agency is 50 ppm, whereas Hong Kong has zero tolerance,” per a circular issued by the Spices Board to all exporters of spices and spice products as well as export bodies.

Last month, Hong Kong recalled three spice blends made by India’s MDH and a spice mix for a fish curry made by Everest. Later, Singapore ordered a recall of the same Everest mix, stating that it contained high levels of ETO, which could cause cancer in humans.

Following this, other countries, such as the US and Australia, have also raised questions about the quality of some Indian spices and are determining whether further action needs to be taken.

India exported spices worth $3.95 billion in 2022-23, per the Spices Board.

As much as half of India’s spice exports could be at risk if quality concerns raised by importing countries are not addressed, per an analysis done by the research body Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI).

“India needs to address the quality issues with urgency and transparency. Swift investigations and the publication of findings are essential to re-establish global trust in Indian spices. Erring firms should face immediate repercussions.,” according to Ajay Srivastava, co-founder of GTRI.

While the Spices Board mandate for ETO testing currently applies to consignments to Singapore and Hong Kong, it recently circulated detailed guidelines for exporters on preventing ETO contamination for the safety of all markets.

The guidelines advise exporters against using ETO as a sterilising agent to reduce microbial contamination in spices consignments and suggest alternatives such as steam sterilisation and irradiation (not applicable to organic products under NPOP). It also provides the MRLs for ETO in important markets.

“Exporters are advised to test their raw materials, processing aids, and finished goods for ETO contamination. On instances of ETO detection above the permissible limits of the importing countries, exporters shall not export the products. Root cause analysis for its occurrence and preventive measures to be followed shall be recorded for taking the necessary steps to avoid future recurrence,” the guidelines noted.

Measures to prevent microbiological cross-contamination, appropriate packaging, careful transportation to ensure protection from any of the external adverse environmental factors, and careful handling of samples for testing were also proposed in the guidelines.

Mandatory testing of spices for ETO is already in place for exports to the EU and the UK. Sp