Indian chilli blocked in EU

Indian exporters of chilli products are smarting. The EU has all but shut the door on them after recently detecting the presence of Sudan red 1, a carcinogenic industrial dye, in one of their consignments to France. And the Spices Board of India has cracked the whip on the three export companies whose products were found contaminated. The unsavoury row has thrown up serious questions regarding the domestic market, too, where adulteration is said to be rampant

 
By Vibha Varshney, Clifford Polycarp
Published: Friday 15 August 2003

-- (Credit: Amit Shanker / CSE)indian exporters of chilli products are smarting. The eu has all but shut the door on them after recently detecting the presence of Sudan red 1, a carcinogenic industrial dye, in one of their consignments to France. And the Spices Board of India has cracked the whip on the three export companies whose products were found contaminated. The unsavoury row has thrown up serious questions regarding the domestic market, too, where adulteration is said to be rampant.

But the authorities merely cite laws to parry the posers. "The Prevention of Food Adulteration (pfa) Rules, 1955, prohibit the use of any colouring matter in chilli powder sold in India," explains a senior official of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare's pfa division. "The Central Food Laboratories test samples of the product and are equipped to detect the presence of any colouring matter," he adds. It may be noted that a Pune-based research organisation has found adulterants such as Sudan 1 in some branded and non-branded chilli products. So much for the safeguards!

The export fiasco which took place in May saw the European Commission (ec) stipulating that in the absence of documentary evidence of purity, no hot chilli or chilli products from India would be allowed to enter the eu market. The ec's decision is likely to have an adverse impact on the export of these products, which account for 20 per cent of the us $300 million Indian spice exports industry. The eu authorities justify their action, highlighting the serious health effects of Sudan red 1. "It is a chemical dye and is not permitted in food," says a spokesperson of the ec (see box: Chilling facts).

The Spices Board of India has suspended the licences of three Mumbai-based companies -- Gautam Export Corporation, Patons Exports Private Limited and Volga Spices & Masala Mills (Private) Limited. The exporters expectedly deny the presence of carcinogens in the chilli powder. J J Advani, partner, Gautam exports, and director, Patons exports, says that the ec order is actually a non-tariff barrier.

K P Sarin, executive secretary, All India Food Processors Association, New Delhi, sees a larger controversy. "The decision to add dye is likely to have been taken by both the exporter and importer," he avers. While Sarin concedes that the unpackaged material available in the market is adulterated, Advani claims he knows "interesting facts" about well-known chilli powder brands also.

It is an open secret that colouring agents are added to chilli to mask its poor quality. A trader in Khari Baoli, a Delhi-based wholesale market for spices and chemicals, informs Down To Earth that "food grade colours" such as oil orange and oil red are sometimes used for the purpose. What he leaves unsaid is that oil orange is another name for Sudan red 1. It is used more widely than food grade orange colour because it is much cheaper.

Chillies are included in the list of notified commodities for which the Export Inspection Council of India (eic) -- under the Union ministry of commerce -- is authorised to conduct pre-shipment checks. This rule was waived earlier if the importer did not ask for a certificate. Now, eic has decided to make certification mandatory.

When asked to comment on the ec order, officials of the Spices Board of India clammed up on the pretext that the matter was "sensitive". An eic official, however, exuded scepticism: "There were times, when rejected consignments were found to be up to the mark on being tested again." Vijay Sardana, executive director of New Delhi-based Centre for Trade in Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, is of the view that the entire episode is a consequence of the unregulated Indian market.

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