India’s spices sector which accounts for about 20 per cent of the world’s spices trade, or close to $4 billion, is in the news for the wrong reasons. Consignments of spices headed for Hong Kong and Singapore were rejected because the authorities there found traces of ethylene oxide (ETO) — a sterilising agent with carcinogenic properties — beyond their acceptable limits. Spices importing countries have set their own permissible limits for ETO and other additives, besides aflatoxins arising out of fungal contamination. While some destinations such as EU, or certain buyers, also insist on mandatory testing of consignments, which is done by the Spices Board, others such as Hong Kong or Singapore apparently do not. It appears that Hong Kong and Singapore have turned proactive in enforcing their standards, prompting the Spices Board into damage control mode to avoid possible loss of markets or, worse still, reputation.

For a country that aspires to expand its processed foods industry and exports, such proactive steps become important. As reported by this newspaper, the Spices Board plans to mandatorily test consignments to these two countries as well for ETO. It will also launch an awareness drive among exporters with respect to the norms in different markets. Yet, the controversy raises questions on whether the spices produced for the home market are fit for consumption.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) lays standards for the domestic market and monitors them, whereas the Spices Board checks whether exports are aligned with importing country standards. FSSAI standards pertain to maximum permissible levels for substances such as ETO, aflatoxins, colouring agents and preservatives; in fact, the standards do not allow for any ETO residue. It remains to be seen what comes out of FSSAI’s inspections of Everest and MDH. The FSSAI must inspire confidence in its quality control processes, given that 85 per cent of the spices output goes into the domestic market. While building capacity, FSSAI also needs to be armed with a law that provides for stringent penalties. The Food and Safety Standards Act imposes fines running into a few lakh rupees (Sections 48-59), with a provision for periodic increases. While the fines seem appropriate for the unorganised players which account for over half the spices market, the punishment ought to be more stringent for the bigger players.

At a global level, the confusion over food standards, encompassing spices, horticulture and marine products must be addressed, with India taking the lead. International food standards laid own by Codex Alimentarius, a publication by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, must be regarded as the benchmark by India and others alike. A maze of standards gives rise to the sort of confusion that has broken out now. For India’s processed foods sector to work to the benefit of all stakeholders, the rules must be fair and transparent.