Hong Kong food regulators find cancer-causing ingredients in 4 MDH, Everest products

Hong Kong food regulator CFS, has identified that four products from spice brands MDH and Everest, contain pesticide ethylene oxide, which is classified as a Group-1 carcinogen by IARC.

BySumit Jha

Published Apr 20, 2024 | 8:15 AMUpdatedApr 20, 2024 | 9:38 AM

MDH Everest

The Centre for Food Safety, Hong Kong’s food regulatory authority, has determined that four products from spice brands MDH and Everest Masala manufactured in India contained carcinogenic ingredients.

The food regulator of Hong Kong found that three products of MDH — Madras Curry Powder (spice blend for Madras Curry), Sambhar Masala Mixed Masala Powder, and Curry Powder Mixed Masala Powder — and Everest Fish Curry Masala contained the pesticide ethylene oxide, which is a Group-1 carcinogen.

“The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department announced today that samples of several kinds of prepackaged spice mix products were found to contain a pesticide, ethylene oxide,” said CFS in its statement on 5 April.

“Members of the public should not consume the affected products. The trade should also stop using or selling the affected products immediately if they possess any of them,” it added.

Spices are the heart of India’s culture, history, and economy, elevating cuisine with their rich flavours and aromas. With a legacy dating back to ancient times, India’s spice trade has flourished, making it a global hub.

Today, India leads in spice production, consumption, and export, fueling both its economy and cultural influence worldwide. However, as spices are integral to food, they face strict scrutiny from global food regulators.

Also Read: IIT-Madras researchers patent use of Indian spices to treat cancer

What is ethylene oxide? Why is it being used in products?

Centre for Food Safety, Hong Kong has identified that 4 products from spice brands—MDH and Everest— contain carcinogenic elements ethylene oxide.

Centre for Food Safety, Hong Kong has identified that 4 products from spice brands—MDH and Everest— contain carcinogenic elements ethylene oxide. (Supplied)

Ethylene oxide is a colourless and flammable gas that is commonly used as a pesticide, sterilant, and fumigant in various industries, including agriculture, healthcare, and food processing.

In the context of food products, ethylene oxide is sometimes utilised as a fumigant to control microbial contamination and pests in spices and other dry food items.

Its use in food products is primarily aimed at extending shelf life by eliminating bacteria, fungi, and insects that can cause spoilage or contamination.

However, ethylene oxide is a highly reactive compound, classified as a carcinogen by various health organisations. Prolonged exposure to ethylene oxide has been linked to adverse health effects, including respiratory issues, skin irritation, and increased cancer risk.

Due to its potential health risks, many countries have established strict regulations governing the use of ethylene oxide in food products, setting maximum residue limits to ensure consumer safety.

Also Read: High levels of ethion in popular powdered spices sold in Kerala

The spices made in India

A CFS spokesman said, “The CFS collected the above-mentioned samples from three retail outlets in Tsim Sha Tsui for testing under its routine Food Surveillance Programme. The test results showed that the samples contained a pesticide, ethylene oxide.”

He added: “The CFS has informed the vendors concerned of the irregularities and instructed them to stop the sale and remove from shelves the affected products. According to the CFS’ instructions, the distributors/importers concerned have initiated recalls on the affected products.”

He also said: “Members of the public may call the respective hotlines above during office hours for enquiries about the recalls of the products concerned.”

The spokesman continued, “The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified ethylene oxide as a Group-1 carcinogen. According to the pesticide residues in Food Regulation (Cap. 132CM), food for human consumption containing pesticide residue may only be sold if consumption of the food is not dangerous or prejudicial to health. An offender is liable to a maximum fine of $50,000 and to imprisonment for six months upon conviction.”

He added that the CFS would continue to follow up on incidents and take appropriate action.

South First tried to reach MDH and Everest over the phone, email, and social media. This article will be updated if a response is received.

Also Read: Can sambar actually save you from colon cancer?

Outcome felt in Singapore

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has ordered the recall of Everest’s Fish Curry Masala 50g packets imported from India after it was found to have more-than-permissible limits of ethylene oxide.

In a statement, it said that the CSF had issued a notification on the recall of Everest Fish Curry Masala from India due to the presence of ethylene oxide at levels exceeding permissible limits.

It added that as the implicated products were imported into Singapore, the SFA had directed the importer — Sp Muthiah & Sons Pte Ltd — to recall the products. The recall is ongoing.

“Ethylene oxide is a pesticide that is not authorised for use in food. It can be used to fumigate agricultural products to prevent microbial contamination. Under Singapore’s Food Regulations, ethylene oxide is allowed to be used in the sterilisation of spices,” said the SFA.

Although there is no immediate risk to consumption of food contaminated with low levels of ethylene oxide, long-term exposure may lead to health issues.

“Therefore, exposure to this substance should be minimised as much as possible. Consumers who have purchased the implicated products are advised not to consume them. Those who have consumed the implicated products and have concerns about their health should seek medical advice. Consumers may contact their point of purchase for enquiries,” said the SFA.

It should be mentioned that in June 2023 US Food and Drugs Authority had asked Everest Food Products to recall two products — Sambhar Masala and Garam Masala — that had tested positive for Salmonella, a bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses such as diarrhoea and abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, and vomiting.

(Edited by Arkadev Ghoshal)