India seeks details from Hong Kong, Singapore food regulators amid cancer concerns in spice products

On 20 April, South First reported that Hong Kong’s food regulator identified four products from spice brands MDH and Everest, containing the pesticide ethylene oxide, which is classified as a Group-1 carcinogen by IARC.

BySumit Jha

Published Apr 23, 2024 | 6:48 PMUpdatedApr 23, 2024 | 6:48 PM

MDH and Everest products

After the reports emerged of four products from spice brands MDH and Everest containing cancer-causing ingredients as identified by Hong Kong’s food safety regulator, India, the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of spices, has sought details from food safety regulators of Singapore and Hong Kong.

Hong Kong and Singapore have banned the sale of certain spices of Indian brands MDH and Everest due to quality concerns.

On 20 April, South First reported that Hong Kong’s food regulator, Centre for Food Safety (CFS), identified four products from spice brands MDH and Everest containing the pesticide ethylene oxide, which is classified as a Group-1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

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Ministry seeks detailed report

The Ministry of Commerce and Industry has directed Indian embassies in both Singapore and Hong Kong to send a detailed report on the matter.

The ministry has also sought details from the Indian firms — MDH and Everest, whose products have been banned for allegedly containing pesticide ‘ethylene oxide’ beyond permissible limits.

“Details have been sought from the companies. Root cause of the rejection and corrective actions will be determined along with the exporters concerned,” a commerce ministry official said.

Technical details, analytical reports and the details of the exporters whose consignments have been rejected have been sought from Embassies at Singapore and Hong Kong, the official said.

Details have also been requested from Singapore Food Agency and Centre for Food Safety, and Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, Hong Kong, the official added.

The ministry official mentioned that an industry consultation has also been scheduled to discuss the issue of mandatory testing of ethylene oxide in spice shipments to Singapore and Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the Spices Board of India is looking into the ban imposed by Hong Kong and Singapore on the sale of four spice-mix products of Indian brands MDH and Everest.

In 2022-23 fiscal year, the country exported spices worth nearly ₹32,000 crore. Chilli, cumin, spice oil and oleoresins, turmeric, curry powder and cardamom are major spices exported.

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‘Not to sell or buy the product’

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 pesticide ethylene oxide.

“The 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,” it said in a 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.

“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,” the statement said.

“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 imprisonment for six months upon conviction,” the CFS further said.

It added in the statement that it would continue to follow up on incidents and take appropriate action.

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Aftershocks in Singapore

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) also ordered the recall of Everest’s Fish Curry Masala 50g packets imported from India after it was found to contain 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.

(With PTI inputs)

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)