On April 5, Hong Kong’s food safety department flagged the presence of a carcinogen in two spice mixes imported from India.

Traces of ethylene oxide were found in Everest’s fish curry masala powder and three spice blends made by MDH or Mahashian Di Hatti – Madras curry powder, sambhar masala mixed powder, and curry powder mixed masala. Both companies defended their products against the charges.

The Hong Kong finding set off a series of alarm bells.

On April 18, the Singapore Food Agency issued a recall of Everest’s fish curry masala. The agency asked people to seek medical aid if they had already consumed the recalled batches. By April end, five more countries either issued a ban, a recall or announced they will investigate imported Indian spices.

For consumers in India, the reports led to several questions. Why has the presence of this carcinogen in spices not been flagged in India before? Why did it take Hong Kong to raise the alert?

As Scroll found out from conversations with food regulators and officials, the presence of the pesticide has, perhaps, largely gone undetected for a remarkable reason – Indian laws do not mandate that spices sold in the domestic market be tested for ethylene oxide, or any pesticide residue, unless there are special directions from the authorities.

After the Hong Kong alert, for instance, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India asked all states to test spice brands for pesticide residue.

The carcinogen did show up in the test results.

In Maharashtra, the food regulator’s checks revealed the presence of ethylene oxide in five samples of Everest masala, officials told Scroll. But they are unsure about how to proceed and have asked FSSAI to decide on the next course of action.

Only Rajasthan has announced the recall of some batches of Everest and MDH spices.

The full picture of what the inspections have revealed across the country, or what action, if any, is being considered against the two brands, is not clear.

The Spices Board of India, which regulates export of spices, has made it compulsory to test all spices meant for export for ethylene oxide after the Hong Kong alert. No such test has been made mandatory for spices sold in the domestic market.

Absence of pesticide tests

For routine tests for spices, the norms laid down by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India do not ask for pesticide detection.

Moreover, in special cases, pesticide residue is only tested in whole or individual spices – and not in spice mixes such as the ones flagged by Hong Kong.

In routine testing of spice mixes – such as a fish curry masala – Food and Drug Administration officials check for artificial colouring agents, misbranding, whether ingredients match the label, and for adulteration.

“Only if a special campaign has been announced by the state or central regulator, or if we have a special requirement, do we test for pesticide residue,” said Suhas Ingole, joint commissioner of food in Maharashtra.

Such a scenario emerged after the international alarm over the Indian products.

In April, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India asked all states to test spices made by MDH, Everest and other brands for the presence of pesticides.

Scroll filed a Right to Information query with FSSAI about the findings of the tests.

While the authority did not give national-level data, it said that it found 13 samples of spices collected from nine states unsafe for human consumption, another seven were misbranded and three were substandard. However, of the 251 samples collected, 104 have not even been tested yet.

An unsafe report could mean either pesticide residue was found in them or harmful adulteration was detected.

The FSSAI’s west zonal office, which includes Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, and the Union territories of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, found two samples of MDH and Everest unsafe for consumption, according to the RTI response.

Food regulators in the North East zone collected four samples of Everest and found them safe but did not test any sample of MDH, according to the RTI response.

Separately, Rajasthan reported that its test showed one batch of Everest and two batches of MDH were unsafe for consumption.

Officials in Maharashtra told Scroll that they had found samples of the carcinogen, ethylene oxide, in five samples of Everest masala.

But such measures, as Scroll found out, have led to no nationwide action. “We have written to the FSSAI to understand how we should proceed,” said Suhas Ingole.

The pesticide

Ethylene oxide is a sweet-smelling colourless gas used as a pesticide, as a disinfectant in agricultural products, and in the industrial sector as a steriliser for medical equipment and fumigation of cosmetics.

A direct inhalation of the gas poses risk of lymphoma, breast cancer and leukaemia.

The Centre for Food Safety, Hong Kong, in its release, said “it has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen”. Its use is banned in food in most countries, including India.

Experts told Scroll that ethylene oxide may have entered the spice mix either because it was used on crops or as a cheap agent used to sterilise and disinfect spices.

“Spices in storage are prone to infection from germs such as salmonella bacteria,” said Kaushik Banerjee, principal scientist from Indian Council of Agricultural Research. “Ethylene oxide can help kill the bacteria. It has a low boiling point at 10.7 degree Celsius. This means it evaporates immediately leaving behind almost no residue.”

Under Indian law, ethylene oxide is not registered as a pesticide, which means its use is forbidden in agriculture or in any food. “It is not registered as a pesticide under Insecticide Act, 1968, and therefore not regulated,” said Deepak Shah, chairman of Crop Care Federation of India. “Ideally it must not be used as a pesticide on crops.”

Food inspectors Scroll spoke to, however, admit its presence is widespread in the food industry.

“We believe ethylene oxide is used as fumigant in storage warehouses for spices or as pesticide during cultivation,” an FDA officer from Maharashtra said. “But that is out of our jurisdiction to test or monitor. Our role comes when the spice is ready to be sold in the market.”

A FDA laboratory director told Scroll the presence of ethylene oxide is “not unusual” in spices, condiments, and even fruits and vegetables.

Experts said there is a need to replace ethylene oxide as a disinfectant due to its health and environmental impacts, but alternatives such as steam sterilisation or irradiation have not been as popular. “The only solution is to maintain a hygienic storage facility to avoid infection,” Banerjee said.

Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi, a public policy expert from Pesticide Action Network, pointed out that Indian laws are so relaxed that the pesticide residue left behind by ethylene oxide is often overlooked in the domestic market. “It is only when spices are exported that such tests are carried out because other countries are strict about it,” Donthi said.

The global market

The presence of pesticides in Indian spices has been flagged before by several countries. In 2023, USA rejected 8% and Germany rejected 18% of spices exported from India due to pesticide residue, according to data from Crop Care Federation of India.

A report by the European Union released days after the Hong Kong alert pointed out that ethylene oxide was found mostly in spices imported from India.

Such reports can adversely affect India’s trade in spices, experts warn.

A report by Global Trade Research Initiative in May said that 51.1% of spice exports, worth $2.17 billion, could be affected if Indian spices continue to get rejected by foreign countries.

“This situation could worsen if the European Union, which regularly rejects Indian spice consignments over quality issues, follows suit. An EU-wide rejection could impact an additional $2.5 billion, bringing the total potential loss to 58.8% of India’s worldwide spice exports,” the report said.

Following the Hong Kong recall, the Spices Board of India on May 7 declared that ethylene oxide can no longer be used as a fumigating agent and manufacturers have to look for alternative sterilisation.

Spice exporters have to test raw material, packaging material, and the final product for contamination and carry a root-cause analysis if they find ethylene oxide, the board said.

Testing handicaps

But while exports are set to undergo careful scrutiny, such a notification has not been issued for spices sold in the domestic market.

A food analyst told Scroll that they require sophisticated tests such as mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to detect pesticide residue in spices. “Most government labs do not have the equipment to conduct these tests,” the analyst said. “We have to send them to private labs for testing.”

There are only 73 such laboratories in India that have the capacity to do this test.

“With so many samples and few labs to test them, the waiting period to get the results will be long,” a government food inspector told Scroll.

The backlog shows up in many states. In Maharashtra, data accessed by Scroll shows that 331 samples of spice powder and 89 samples of whole spices were seized for testing between April 2023 and March 2024.

Of 89 whole spices, 42 have been tested till May 15. Of them over 50% were substandard and four were unsafe for use. Of 331 loose and packaged spice powder collected, 150 have been tested. Of them six were found substandard and one unsafe for consumption.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this article.