By Ashutosh Jaiswal and Neha Jasrotia

Introduction

In the world of culinary delights, ready-made spice mixes hold a cherished place, adding convenience and flavour to countless dishes. However, recent concerns over food safety have brought to light the presence of ethylene oxide (ETO) in some of these products. Ethylene oxide, a gas used primarily for sterilization and fumigation, poses significant health risks if ingested in large quantities. This article delves into the detection of ETO in spice mixes, its implications, and the measures taken to ensure food safety.

Ethylene oxide (ETO) has recently made headlines due to its detection in ready-made spice mixes, raising concerns about food safety. While the presence of ETO can be alarming, a closer look at the science behind it reveals a more nuanced perspective. ETO is known to be harmful when inhaled, but the risks posed by small residues in food products are less clear-cut. This article explores the complexities surrounding ETO in spice mixes, including permissible limits, regulatory positions, and the reasons for its use.

Understanding Ethylene Oxide (ETO)

Ethylene oxide (ETO) is a toxic, colourless, flammable gas that’s used to sterilize spices and other food products to get rid of microbial elements, including pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli. However, ETO residue can pose health risks, including cancer, if it exceeds safe levels, which vary by country. 

Ethylene oxide is a chemical compound used extensively in various industries for its sterilizing properties. In the food industry, ETO is often employed to disinfect spices and other food products to eliminate bacteria, viruses, and fungi. While effective in sterilization, the compound is classified as a carcinogen, and prolonged exposure can lead to serious health issues, including cancer.

Why is ETO Used?

ETO is used primarily for its potent sterilizing properties. In the spice industry, it helps in controlling microbial contamination, which can be particularly high in raw spices sourced from various agricultural environments. By using ETO, manufacturers can ensure that their products are free from harmful microorganisms, thereby extending shelf life and ensuring safety for consumers.

The Problem with ETO in Spice Mixes

The presence of ETO in food products is a growing concern due to its potential health risks. In ready-made spice mixes, the use of ETO can lead to contamination if not properly managed. Spices, particularly those sourced from regions with less stringent regulatory oversight, may be treated with ETO to meet hygiene standards. However, the residue of ETO in these spices can pose a risk to consumers.

Is ETO Carcinogenic?

ETO is classified as a carcinogen by various health organizations, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). This classification is based on studies showing that high levels of ETO exposure can lead to an increased risk of cancer, particularly in occupational settings where inhalation is the primary route of exposure. However, the risk associated with ingesting small residues of ETO in food is considered to be much lower.

The Permissible Limits of ETO

Regulatory bodies around the world have established maximum residue limits (MRLs) for ETO in food products to minimize health risks. For instance, the European Union (EU) has set strict limits, These limits are designed to ensure that any ETO residue present in food is within safe consumption levels.

Across European Union, Ethylene Oxide residues are regulated in compliance with:

  • (EU) 2020/1540 –  regulations for Ethylene Oxide monitoring
  • (EU) 2021/2246 – regulations for increase of official controls and emergency measures for entry of goods having Ethylene Oxide
  • (EU) 2019/1793 – Sesame seeds originating in India
  •  (EU) 2015/868 – Maximum residual limits (MRLs) for ETO and 2-CE in different foods / Agriculture Commodities ranging from 0.02 to 0.1 mg/kg
  • (EC) No 396/2005 – Maximum residue level of 0.05 mg/kg

 EU has proposed separate Maximum residual limits (MRLs) for ethylene oxide and its primary metabolite 2-chloroethanol in different food and agriculture commodities ranging from 0.02 to 0.1 mg/kg (Commission Regulation (EU) 2015/868.

MRLs of ETO for spices & herbs specified in the Commission regulation (EU) 2015/868

Code number

Groups and examples of individual products

ETO in mg/kg

0800000 SPICES

 

0810000

(i) Seeds

 

 

 

 

 

0.10

0810010

Anise

0810020

Black caraway

0810030

Celery seed (Lovage seed)

0810040

Coriander seed

0810050

Cumin seed

0810060

Dill seed

0810070

Fennel seed

0820000

(ii) Fruits and berries

 

 

 

 

 

 

0.10

0820010

Allspice

0820020

Sichuan pepper (Anise pepper, Japan pepper

0820030

Caraway

0820040

Cardamom

0820050

Juniper berries

0820060

Pepper, black, green and white (Long pepper, pink pepper)

0820070

Vanilla pods

0820080

Tamarind

0820990

Others

0830000

(iii) Bark

 

0.10

0830010

Cinnamon (Cassia)

0830990

Others

0840000

(iv) Roots or rhizome

 

 

0.10

0840010

Liquorice

0840020

Ginger

0840030

Turmeric (Curcuma)

0840040

Horseradish

0840990

Others

0850000

(v) Buds

 

0.10

0850010

Cloves

0850020

Capers

0850990

Others

0860000

(vi) Flower stigma

0.10

0860010

Saffron

0860990

Others

0870000

(vii) Aril

0.10

0870010

Mace

0870990

Others

0231020

Peppers (Chilli peppers)

0.02

0220010

Garlic

0.02

0256030

Celery leaves

0.05

0256040

Parsley

0.05

0256050

Sage

0.05

0256060

Rosemary

0.05

0256070

Thyme (Marjoram, oregano)

0.05

0256080

Basil (Balm leaves, mint, peppermint, holy basil, sweet basil, hairy basil, edible flowers (marigold flower and others), pennywort, wild betel leaf, curry leaves)

0.05

0256090

Bay leaves

0.05

0256100

Tarragon (Hyssop)

0.05

0401080

Mustard seed

0.05

0163050

Pomegranate

0.02

Regulatory Position in India

In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) governs food safety standards, including permissible limits for contaminants like ETO. Recently, FSSAI has been updating its regulations to align with international standards, ensuring that both imported and domestically produced spices meet safety criteria. The permissible limit for ETO residues in spices set by FSSAI is generally in line with global standards, ensuring that the residues remain within safe consumption levels.

Testing Facilities in India

India has been enhancing its food safety infrastructure, including the establishment of advanced testing facilities capable of detecting ETO residues. Laboratories accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) are equipped with sophisticated instruments such as Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) and High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to accurately measure ETO levels in spices and other food products

Testing Facility

Location

Website

Export Inspection Council of India (EIC)

Multiple locations across India

eicindia.gov.in

Indian Institute of Spices Research (IISR)

Kozhikode, Kerala

spices.res.in

Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI)

Mysuru, Karnataka

cftri.res.in

Vimta Labs

Hyderabad, Telangana

vimta.com

Intertek India Pvt. Ltd.

Multiple locations across India

intertek.com

Eurofins Analytical Services India

Multiple locations across India

eurofins.in

SGS India

Multiple locations across India

sgs.com

TÜV SÜD South Asia

Multiple locations across India

tuvsud.com

Bureau Veritas India

Multiple locations across India

bureauveritas.co.in

Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR)

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

iitrindia.org

Detection Methods for ETO

To mitigate these risks, robust detection methods for ETO in spice mixes are essential. The following are commonly used techniques for detecting ETO residues:

  1. Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS): This method is highly sensitive and can accurately measure ETO levels in spices. It involves separating the chemical compounds in a sample and identifying them based on their mass-to-charge ratio.
  2. Headspace Gas Chromatography (HS-GC): This technique involves analysing the gas phase above a sample to detect volatile substances like ETO. It is particularly effective for identifying residual ETO in spice mixes.
  3. High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC): While more commonly used for liquid samples, HPLC can also be adapted for detecting ETO residues by converting ETO into a detectable derivative.
  4. Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR): This method uses infrared light to detect specific chemical bonds, including those found in ETO, providing a non-destructive means of analysis.

Regulatory Standards and Compliance

To ensure consumer safety, regulatory bodies worldwide have established maximum residue limits (MRLs) for ETO in food products. For instance, the European Union has set stringent limits on ETO residues, requiring that any detected levels must be well below the established MRLs to be considered safe for consumption. Compliance with these regulations is mandatory for food producers and importers.

Regulatory Standards and Compliance

To ensure consumer safety, regulatory bodies worldwide have established maximum residue limits (MRLs) for ETO in food products. For instance, the European Union has set stringent limits on ETO residues, requiring that any detected levels must be well below the established MRLs to be considered safe for consumption. Compliance with these regulations is mandatory for food producers and importers.

Challenges and Solutions

Detecting and managing ETO residues in spice mixes pose several challenges. The primary issue is the variation in regulatory standards across different countries, which can lead to inconsistencies in product safety. Additionally, the complexity of spice mixtures can make detection more difficult.

The Spices Board of India has issued guidelines to help exporters prevent ETO contamination in spices. These guidelines include:

  • Adopting alternative sterilization methods, such as steam sterilization or irradiation
  • Adhering to guidelines for minimizing microbial contamination in spices
  • Not accepting spices, herbs, or their source plants that are known to contain contaminants that can’t be reduced to acceptable levels through normal processing, sorting, or preparation 

 To address these challenges, a multi-faceted approach is necessary:

  • Harmonizing International Standards: Efforts should be made to align regulatory standards globally to ensure consistent safety measures.
  • Enhanced Screening Processes: Food producers should implement rigorous screening processes using advanced detection methods to identify and mitigate ETO residues.
  • Consumer Awareness: Educating consumers about the potential risks and the importance of purchasing spices from reputable sources can help in making informed choices.

Conclusion

Ensuring the safety of ready-made spice mixes is crucial for public health. The detection of ethylene oxide residues requires advanced scientific techniques and stringent regulatory oversight. By adopting comprehensive detection methods and adhering to international safety standards, the food industry can continue to provide flavourful and safe spice mixes to consumers worldwide. As stakeholders in the food supply chain, it is our collective responsibility to prioritize food safety and protect consumer health.

Ensuring informed consumer choices and continuous regulatory vigilance is key to maintaining the delicate balance between food safety and public health.