As Indian Spice Brands Face Heat, Is the Spice Export Market on the Brink of a Downfall?

Spices are what India’s food is all about, and millions of Indians wear this as a proud, shiny badge. In 2023-24, India’s spice exports totaled USD 4.25 billion, accounting for a 12%share of the global spice exports. However, the Indian spice export industry finds itself embroiled in a crisis of confidence as concerns over product contamination have led to investigations by regulatory bodies in multiple countries.

Most Exported Spices from India

MDH and Everest – two of the most prominent and widely sold spice brands in India – are under scrutiny for the alleged presence of ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical, in their spice mixes sold internationally. According to a recent study by the think tank GTRI, the implications of this controversy are far-reaching and hold the potential to jeopardize over half of India’s spice exports. GTRI findings prompt urgent calls for stringent quality control measures by Indian food regulatory bodies on the matter.

The crisis began when regulatory agencies in several countries, including Singapore, Hong Kong, and the United States, raised alarms about the quality of spice mixes manufactured by MDH and Everest. On April 5, Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety suspended the sale of three MDH spice blends and Everest fish curry masala. The spice mixes contained high levels of ethylene oxide, the regulator said and advised consumers against purchasing these products. Days later, Singapore ordered a recall of the Everest spice mix, stating: “Ethylene oxide is a pesticide that is not authorized for use in food,” adding that the pesticide makes the spices unfit for human consumption and poses a cancer risk if exposed for too long.

The primary violations in these incidents include the presence of ethylene oxide, a carcinogen used as a fumigating agent, and salmonella contamination, a common bacterial cause of foodborne illness. Such substances pose significant health risks, including cancer and severe gastrointestinal distress. Violations also extend to pesticide residues and noncompliance with Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs), impacting overall food safety.

Top Exporters of Spice from India

The Spices Board of India has responded by initiating mandatory testing of exported products and collaborating with exporters to identify the root cause of contamination. However, concerns have been raised about the delay in doing so. If reports are to be believed, shipments from both these brands have faced repeated rejections from international bodies – something that should have raised an alarm with the Spices Board and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India – however, the reality is rather different.

The GTRI study suggests that although both bodies have begun routine sampling, no definitive
statements about spice quality have been issued by these or any other government agencies. The lack of communication from these agencies leads to diminishing confidence in India’s spice market. In fact, Organizations like CUTS International advocate for stronger oversight from the FSSAI to ensure the safety of spices sold in both domestic and international markets.

The international community has closely monitored the situation, with regulatory bodies in various countries taking action to protect consumer safety. Hong Kong, Singapore, the United States, Maldives, Australia, and Bangladesh have either suspended sales of affected products or announced plans for further investigation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is gathering additional information, signaling a potential ripple effect on Indian spice imports into one of its key markets.

The repercussions of the contamination concerns extend beyond immediate market suspensions. If left unaddressed, these issues could lead to a significant downturn in India’s spice exports, potentially affecting over half of the country’s total spice exports. With major importing countries like China, the United States, and the European Union already expressing concerns, India’s spice industry faces a critical moment that demands swift and decisive action.

With India having exported spices valued at approximately USD 692.5 million to the United States, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and Malé in the fiscal year 2024, the stakes are high. If China, influenced by actions in Hong Kong and ASEAN based on the precedents set by Singapore, decides to implement similar measures, Indian spice exports could see a dramatic downturn, suggests GTRI. The potential repercussions could affect exports valued at USD 2.17 billion, representing 51.1% of India’s global spice exports.

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 USD 2.5 billion, bringing the total potential loss to 58.8% of India’s worldwide spice exports.

The crisis has underscored the need for stringent quality control measures to restore global trust in Indian spices. Consumers are increasingly questioning the safety and quality of trusted brands, highlighting regulatory lapses and raising health concerns.

The contamination concerns plaguing India’s spice export industry represent a significant challenge that requires immediate attention and action. With the reputation of Indian spices at stake and potential losses looming large, the industry must prioritize quality control measures to safeguard consumer health and restore trust in one of India’s most prized exports.

As investigations continue and regulatory measures are implemented, the Indian spice export industry stands at a crossroads. Transparency, stringent enforcement of quality standards, and clear communication are essential to restore and maintain the integrity of Indian spices. Fundamental changes in the functioning of regulatory agencies are necessary to rebuild confidence among consumers and trading partners alike.

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