top of page

Is EthyleneOxide(ETO) a necessary evil?

The recent uproar over the presence of Ethylene Oxide (ETO) in Indian spices has sparked a global debate: Is ETO a necessary evil for spice sterilization? This blog post dives deep into the details of ETO’s use, its risks, and the viable alternatives that could reshape the future of spice safety.

Government regulations on ETO treatment

Why is ETO in the news?

The current controversy surrounding Ethylene Oxide (ETO) in Indian spices(particularly in some MDH and Everest powders) was triggered by reports from health officials in Hong Kong and Singapore. They found high levels of ETO, a cancer-causing pesticide, in spice mixes made by popular Indian brands MDH and Everest. This led to the suspension of sales and recalls of these products in the mentioned regions. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also began probing into these products following these findings.


The European Union (EU) added to the concern by publishing a report that revealed out of 2026 food samples tested for ETO, 47 exceeded the Maximum Residue Level (MRL), with several samples coming from India. These events have raised significant health concerns and prompted a wider investigation into the use of ETO in food products, particularly spices exported from India. The findings have also led to increased scrutiny by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which has decided to test samples and work with the companies involved to investigate the root cause of these quality issues.


The Dichotomy of ETO

ETO is a colourless gas widely used for its sterilizing properties, especially in the medical field and food industry. Its efficacy in eradicating bacteria, fungi, and insects is unparalleled, making it a go-to option for ensuring the safety of various products, including spices. Additionally, ETO can penetrate packaging materials, making it effective for treating packaged foods without compromising their integrity.

However, ETO’s dark side cannot be overlooked. Classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the health implications of ETO exposure are severe, ranging from acute respiratory issues to long-term cancer risks. This has led to stringent regulations and outright bans in several countries, particularly within the European Union.


Does ETO effect food?

While ETO can effectively eliminate pathogens, concerns arise regarding its potential effects on food quality and safety. ETO residues may remain on treated foods, and long-term exposure to even low levels of ETO has been linked to adverse health effects, including cancer and reproductive issues. Moreover, ETO can react with certain food components to form potentially harmful byproducts, further raising safety concerns.


The Global MRLs Standoff

Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) for ETO vary drastically across the globe. The detection of ETO residues in food has prompted international bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Codex Alimentarius Commission, to establish guidelines and regulations for its use.

While the EU enforces a near-zero tolerance policy, other nations like the US and Canada permit higher levels, citing different risk assessments and sterilization needs. This disparity poses a significant challenge for spice exporters, who must navigate a labyrinth of international standards. The European Union has a general default MRL of 0.01 mg/kg for pesticides not specifically mentioned, including ETO. The US and Canada have established higher tolerance levels for ETO residues in spices at 7 mg/kg.


Alternatives to ETO:

The quest for safer sterilization methods has introduced a plethora of alternatives. From steam sterilization to radiation and gas plasma, each technique offers its own set of benefits and drawbacks. The table below provides a snapshot comparison of these methods:

Method

Advantages

Drawbacks

Example Commodity

Steam Sterilization

Non-toxic, effective

May alter flavor

Herbs

Dry Heat

Good for dry spices

Long process

Cumin Seeds

Gamma Radiation

Deep penetration

Requires safety measures

Chilli Powder

E-Beam Radiation

Quick process

Limited depth

Ground Spices

VHP

No toxic residue

Special equipment

Delicate Botanicals

Ozone

Environmentally friendly

System requirements

Organic Herbs

As the industry evolves, these alternatives are gaining traction, offering some alternatives for a future free from the risks of ETO. Check out your detailed guide to different sterilization method here.


Why is ETO Still Used?

Despite the availability of alternative sterilization methods, ETO continues to be used in the food industry for several reasons:

Effectiveness: ETO is highly effective in sterilizing heat-sensitive materials, such as certain plastics and spices, without causing damage.

Regulatory Approval: ETO sterilization processes are well-established and approved by regulatory agencies, providing a level of confidence in their efficacy and safety when used within regulatory limits.

Cost-Efficiency: ETO sterilization may be more cost-effective compared to some alternative methods, making it economically favourable for certain applications.


Preventive measures to avoid exceeding the MRLs:

Alternative Sterilization: Employ alternative sterilization methods such as steam sterilization or irradiation.

Regular Testing: Implement a routine testing protocol for raw materials, processing aids, and finished goods to detect ETO contamination early.

Supplier Guidelines: Provide clear guidelines to suppliers about the non-use of ETO for sterilization spices intended for export, especially to regions with strict MRLs.

Quality Control Systems: Establish robust quality control systems to monitor and prevent microbiological cross-contamination.

Packaging and Storage: Use appropriate packaging and storage to protect spices from environmental contamination.


The latest advisory from Government of India

As per circular No.01/2024-25 from Spice Board of India, as a proactive measure to address the concerns regarding Ethylene Oxide (ETO) contamination in spice products has decided to commence mandatory ETO testing in spice consignments exported for Singapore and Hong Kong.

Spice board's new guidelines

Conclusion: Necessary Evil or Replaceable Relic?

ETO’s role in spice sterilization is at a crossroads. While its effectiveness is undeniable, the health and environmental concerns it raises cannot be ignored. The industry must weigh the costs and benefits, considering whether the pursuit of sterility justifies the potential harm. With viable alternatives on the rise, ETO may soon become a relic of the past, replaced by methods that safeguard both our health and our spices.


Comments

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page