IN THIS WEEK’S ISSUE

Harmful bacteria in Indian spices, ban on buying and selling in the country

Manjit Sing

Former Indian actor and current food writer Madhur Jafri said in one of his essays, ‘Spices to Indians are like colors in a color box.

Former Indian actor and current food writer Madhur Jafri said in one of his essays, ‘Spices to Indians are like colors in a color box. Just as colors can be enhanced by mixing different ingredients, Indians also know how to vary the taste of any spice.’

Explaining the matter, he said, ‘The main function of spices is to enhance the taste of food and spices are used in various ways in Indian dishes, as a result the taste also varies. If you cook two dishes of the same dish, one in roasted spices and the other in powdered spices — they will taste different.’

Incidentally, the presence of spices is mandatory in almost all Indian dishes. India has already earned the title of ‘global center of spice production’ due to its large domestic production and its export to the outside world over the last several years. India produces 12 percent of the world’s spices and various Indian spices are exported to about 180 countries.

India’s domestic spice market size is $1 trillion. Besides, the country earns 4 billion dollars every year by exporting spices to various foreign countries. The three biggest buyers of Indian spices are China, USA and Bangladesh. Indian entrepreneurs also export spices to United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The most sought after Indian spices in the global market are – chilli-coriander-turmeric powder, cardamom and mixed spices. Apart from these, hing, saffron, nutmeg, fennel, cloves and cinnamon are also in great demand across the world. And the country’s two companies – MDH and Everest – are at the top in the export of Indian spices to the world.

However, recently, questions are being raised about the product quality of these two companies in different countries. Many countries are also considering imposing a moratorium on the sale and purchase of Indian spices in their domestic markets due to allegations of adulteration and harmful ingredients in the spices.

Last month, Singapore and Hong Kong authorities banned the sale and purchase of products made by MDH and Everest in their domestic markets. In a related notification, the administration said, excessive presence of a harmful chemical element called ‘ethylene oxide’ has been observed in the products of these two companies. If this substance enters the human body for a long time, there is a serious risk of cancer.

It does not end here. Tests by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have also found high levels of ethylene oxide in MDH and Everest products. An FDA spokesperson told the BBC on this issue that allegations of adulteration in Indian spices are not new. Of the spices India exported to the US in 2021, 14.5 per cent packets of spices were found to contain harmful bacteria. MDH and Everest authorities were also informed about this – but they denied it.

The European Union (EU) has made the same complaint. The EU’s regulatory agency said cancer-causing chemicals have been detected in chili powder and pepper imported from India. Recently, food regulatory agencies in Bangladesh, Maldives and Australia have also decided to test imported Indian spices.

This is not the first time that Indian spices have been accused of adulteration. In 2014, Calcutta-based biochemist and expert Ipsita Majumdar tested lead in various brands of chili, turmeric, coriander, garam masala powder and curry powder popular in West Bengal. Later he said, using artificial colors to enhance the brightness of spice powder; Those colors are the source of lead.

MDH has been trading powdered spices for the last 105 years. 60 brands of powdered spices manufactured by this company are currently available in the market. On the other hand, Everest has been associated with this business for 57 years. Superstars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan are the brand ambassadors of this company.

Although India’s Ministry of Health has been insisting that spice powder export clearance is given only after strict quality control tests, the FDA alleges that the Indian authorities did not carry out quality control tests before issuing the clearance to the samples they tested.

New Delhi-based think tank Global Trade Research Initiatives in a recent report expressed concern over the issue—if China, EU take up the issue of spice contamination—the global market for Indian spices will be seriously affected.

“If China and the EU take this matter seriously and take legal action, the global market for Indian spices will be half destroyed.”

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