Ethylene oxide standards missing in India; standards needed for all chemicals in the food system
The export market of organic goods is taking a hit — and India’s lack of standards on ethylene oxide might be to blame.
Indian organic produce worth $1,040 million (Rs 7,078 crore) was exported in 2020-21, up by 51 per cent from $689 million (Rs 4,685 crore) in 2019- 20. It was hailed as the growing recognition of the Indian organic produce industry. But in 2021-22, instead of showing the same trends, it fell by 26 per cent to $771 (Rs 5,249 crore).
Read more: Harming the organic farming movement
Exports form a big part of the Indian organic industry and the fall seems to have a history to it.
In July 2022, five certification bodies (CBs) from India, namely Ecocert India, Control Union India, Indocert, Lacon India, and OneCert International, were barred from clearing or ratifying exports of Indian processed organic food products due to their failure to comply with European Union (EU) standards and ensure contamination-free products.
Prior to that, on January 11, 2021, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ended its recognition agreement with India’s Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA).
The recognition agreement allowed APEDA to accredit certifiers to provide USDA organic certification to farms and businesses in India. The USDA said this was done because: “India’s organic control system has been determined to be insufficient to protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal adequately.”
According to people in the industry, the presence of ethylene oxide or ETO (a potential carcinogen) in multiple consignments, especially of sesame seeds, was the reason for the suspension of the five certification bodies by the EU and the US’s termination of the equivalence agreement with India.
In a circular dated November 27, 2020, APEDA issued an advisory on the same issue, citing the multiple detections of the same residue in several organic shipments and cautioning that it may tarnish the credibility India has achieved in the overseas market over the years.
However, individuals from the industry claim that APEDA issued the advisory but failed to assuage the situation or take precautionary measures in advance.
ETO is an insecticide used as a fumigant during the storage of organic products. It is capable of killing most viruses, bacteria, and fungi, as well as bacterial spores. Because of these properties, it is used to sterilise food, spices, etc.
Earlier exporters used steam sterilisation, but it can fade natural colour pigments, reduce nutrition, and increase moisture content, creating favourable conditions for bacteria and fungi to grow and produce toxic substances such as mycotoxins.
The European Union amended Regulation (EC) No 669/2009 in 2017 because of microbial contamination with salmonella, which led to an increase in rejections of shipments. As a precaution, Indian food and agricultural commodities were sterilised with ETO to prevent salmonella growth.
However, it is critical to ensure that the samples are aerated for 24 hours after sterilisation with ethylene oxide to remove any residue left over from the process.
Improper aeration can leave a possibility of ETO residue in samples, which can lead to the formation of another toxic non-volatile compound, 2-chloroethanol. In some cases, it could even be fatal.
So, it is important to note here that the presence of ETO in shipments is not a production issue but a storage issue.
“Several tests are conducted on exported commodities, including pesticide residues, heavy metals, ETO, etc, as required by the country of import. The capacity building of certification bodies and testing agencies is needed to bring quality and uniformity,” said Ekta Jaju, founder and chief executive for ONganic Foods.
EU has proposed separate maximum residual limits (MRLs) for ETO and its primary metabolite, 2-chloroethanol, due to carcinogenic and mutagenic concerns. The MRLs for various food and agricultural commodities ranging from 0.02 to 0.1 mg/kg (Commission Regulation (EU) 2015/868).
An MRL limit determines the maximum permitted level of a pesticide (or any other agricultural chemical) in a food commodity following its safe and authorised use.
In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has the mandate to set standards on residues in food products. However, there are no standards for ETO.
There is no mention of ETO in either the manual of NPOP issued by APEDA or in the document on MRL in organic food issued by FSSAI. Yet, ETO is used in storage/warehouses due to its effectiveness as discussed above.
For clarification, ETO is not identical to ethylene gas, which is approved by both bodies for the artificial ripening of fruits.
“Currently, there is no MRL on ETO in India,” said a senior scientist from the National Institute of Nutrition (ICMR-NIN), Telangana.
Testing is done on random samples twice a year in India, said MN Prasad P, assistant manager of the food division at contract research and testing organisation Vimta Lab. “There are different types of residues tested for different products. Indian law does not mandate ETO testing, so it is not required,” he said.
Statements by NIN and Vimta lab were confirmed by Rohit Jain, the founder of Banyan Root, and Akash Badave, the CEO of Bhoomgaadi FPC and Aadim brand. Both stated that ETO residue testing is not required for their products to be sold in the Indian market.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, monitoring organic food production became difficult. Especially keeping the integrity of organic products in warehouses became an issue,” said PVSM Gauri, chief executive of the Association of Indian Organic Industry.
“It was a temporary phase that needed to be recognised in order to maintain people’s trust in Indian organic products,” Gauri added.
Some organic companies question the role of APEDA.
“EU raised concerns over the inefficiency of some of the CBs in 2021, but APEDA acted in haste and suspended OneCert International overnight. It ignored the fact that OneCert handles nearly 90 per cent of the certifications,” said a company’s chief executive on the condition of anonymity.
Many group certifications expired. The impact was so severe that several businesses were forced to close. It was a significant setback for the Indian organic industry, the chief executive added.
Stakeholders expressed that as multiple certificates are now required due to the end of the equivalence agreement with the US, it has significantly increased compliance costs.
“There are a limited number of competent CBs in India that now have a monopoly and they are charging exuberantly,” said Harsh Rackeka, director of Organics Food.
“The compliance costs have been increased three to four times from Rs 50,000-60,000 per project to Rs 2 lakh. Dealing in organic food is becoming extremely difficult, especially for the small players”, he further added.
Players from the industry believe that the functioning of CBs, whether public or private, needs improvement.
APEDA has increased the monitoring and inspections, but they should act more proactively to help certification bodies upgrade and work towards their capacity building as certifications have many technical aspects, said Rajashekar Reddy Seelam, the founder of 24 Mantra.
“Last year was disastrous for the organic industry in India. But, there could be a silver lining if cleaning the bad players is done and standards are set and met. For that, APEDA’s organic team need to be strengthened and shall show more appreciation towards organic,” Seelam further said.
The absence of standards on ETO doesn’t necessarily mean that organic products in India are unsafe. ETO residues in foods pose a chronic risk to health rather than an acute threat.
There is an increased health risk if foods contaminated with ETO are consumed over a long period of time. Therefore, exposure to ETO needs to be minimised, and so standards are needed.
Almost all the people reached out to express concerns that such incidents hamper consumer trust in organic products, which can have disastrous results for the sector itself. However, it needs to be acknowledged that the organic industry in India is driven by exports.
The US and EU together comprise 87 per cent (in value) of the market. Such occurrences have serious implications for farmers and companies who rely on these markets for their livelihoods and business, as well as for the growth and development of the Indian organic agriculture sector as a whole.
Indian regulatory bodies must make standards for chemicals involved in any part of the food system. This will ensure that food chemicals are compliant with global standards.
Central and state governments are promoting organic/natural farming. However, actions to address the issues and make changes to the overall organic certification process in the country can improve the situation over time.
There was no response from FSSAI and APEDA despite multiple calls and emails. No information on the companies the rejected shipments belonged to could be found.
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