Navigating Challenges: Reinforcing the Integrity of Indian Spices

India leads globally as the largest producer, consumer, and exporter of spices. Overall spice exports have shown steady growth with a 5-year CAGR of 5.2% . In the last decade, India’s spice exports increased from US$ 2.4 billion in 2013-14 to US$ 4.2 billion in 2023-24, indicating a sharp rise driven by strong global demand and India’s competitive edge in the spice industry. 

The calendar year 2024 started off strong with spice exports rising steadily but the industry started facing scrutiny in April when Hong Kong suspended the sale of some spice blends due to allegations of elevated EtO levels, leading to recalls and enhanced scrutiny in other countries. While this is indeed a reason for concern in the short term, it certainly does not reflect on India’s spice ecosystem, which follows the most stringent standards in terms of food production and processing. On the other hand, the issue of MRL does need a relook to ensure that it brings assurance of quality and safety without hampering trade flows. 


India leads globally as the largest producer, consumer, and exporter of spices and is aptly called the Spice Bowl of the World. The country’s spices exports have increased steadily from US$ 2.4 billion in 2013-14 to US$ 4.2 billion in 2023-24. Calendar year 2024 started off strong with spice exports rising steadily but the industry started facing scrutiny in April when Hong Kong suspended the sale of some spice blends due to elevated EtO levels, a carcinogenic substance and further when Singapore recalled Everest products which triggered investigations in New Zealand, the United States, and Australia.

In May, the UK introduced stringent regulations on all spice imports from India in response to contamination allegations against the two brands, marking the first instance of such heightened scrutiny on Indian spices by any country. India exported spices valued at US$ 122 million to the UK in 2023-24.

The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has implemented its strictest measures to date regarding Indian spices, imposing additional regulations on pesticide residues, particularly ethylene oxide.

India's spices exports monthly trend_TPCI

Source: DGCIS, export figures in US$ million

According to a PTI report, the ongoing controversy has the potential to severely impact over 50% of India’s spice exports. Trade research body GTRI has suggested urgent measures to tackle quality concerns in its report. There is a need for transparency, stringent enforcement, and clear communication to restore global trust in Indian spices and protect both export and domestic markets.

While it is too early to assess the impact of the controversy on exports, given the time lag between order placement and export realisation, the industry is understandably concerned about the short term impact on spice exports. “The entire spice industry is experiencing significant impact, and we anticipate a decline in exports. We are actively exploring advanced sterilization methods to better meet current demands,” stated Aashish Baid, Co-Owner, JK Spices.

Effect on exports of top 5 commodities by value

HS Code Commodity Exports in Mar 2024 Exports in Apr 2024 Change
9042110 Capsicum genus 217.25 74.53 -65.7%
9093129 Other seeds of cummin 103.66 114.19 10.2%
33019022 Capsicum oleoresins 20.46 9.81 -52%
9103020 Ginger, saffron, turmeric and other spices 18.73 16.57 -11.5%
9042211 Chilly powder 18.27 13.63 -25.4%

Source: Ministry of Commerce and Industry; export figures in US$ million

Identifying the Problem

Food Manufacturers/processors/packers using EtO as a sterilizing agent. Whenever food is sterilized with EtO and is not aerated properly, it generally remains as a residue. This leads to the formation of highly toxic compounds which are carcinogenic and can cause severe organ damage. There is a procedure prescribed following EtO Sterilization which typically requires 24 hours of aeration so that the liquid EtO evaporates. Failure in complying with the procedure results in the overdose of EtO above the prescribed Maximum Residual Limit (MRL).

However, it must be noted that the definition of a ‘safe MRL’ for a particular commodity and chemical is not universal and varies across markets. For instance, the American Spice Trade Association had confirmed that according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), consumption of spices treated with ethylene oxide (ETO) is safe.

MRLs are a major issue in global food trade that can crop up from time to time. These incidents highlight the critical regulatory compliance challenges faced by F&B exporters when it comes to meeting international standards for food safety and quality.

A similar problem was faced with EtO in the case of sesame seeds. India’s sesame seed exports to European countries declined from approximately 75,000 metric tons in 2019 to a range of 25,000 to 30,000 metric tons over the past three to four years, primarily due to concerns over EtO. However, efforts led by Indian Oilseeds & Produce Export Promotion Council (IOPEPC), including implementation of Standard Operating Procedures and enhancing backward integration in export processes, successfully addressed the EtO concern. There is now optimism within the industry that India can reclaim a significant portion of the European market for sesame seeds within the coming years.

Measures to Combat MRL challenges

In a concerted effort to bolster the capacity of spice exporters to comply with MRLs, the government, in collaboration with the US FDA and the World Trade Organization (WTO), has initiated comprehensive training programs. These initiatives aim to enforce stricter measures ensuring adherence to stringent processing standards. In terms of stricter measures, FSSAI ordered spices brands to cease sales after identifying unfit samples for consumption.

India's spices exports by region_TPCI

Source: Niryat Portal, based on data for 2023-24

The implementation of these measures follows in-depth root cause analyses conducted by a Techno-Scientific Committee. The committee’s recommendations are being swiftly integrated, prompting thorough inspections of processing facilities and rigorous testing in accredited laboratories. Additionally, extensive stakeholder consultations involving major exporters and key industry associations such as the All India Spices Exporters Forum and the Indian Spice and Foodstuff Exporters’ Association have been instrumental in shaping these guidelines.

Furthermore, recognizing the critical role of pre-emptive measures, the government has mandated the testing of spices destined for Singapore and Hong Kong. This includes mandatory pre-shipment sampling and rigorous EtO testing. Guidelines encompassing all stages of the supply chain—from sourcing and packaging to transportation and final testing—have been meticulously crafted to safeguard against potential EtO contamination across all jurisdictions.

Need for a proper context to the issue

While the short term impact of the recent controversy on exports and consumer perception is undeniable, it is important to note that India remains a trusted source of quality spices across the world, and across millenia. As the above graph shows, India’s spices exports are quite diversified across regions, and an issue like this should not reflect on the whole ecosystem. Having said that, a general guideline is that F&B exporters need to consider the regulatory sensitivities of each region and ensure that their production and supply chain are aligned to those regulations.

Occam’s Razor  is a concept that suggests that simpler solutions are usually more appropriate as compared to complex ones when faced with multiple options. It emphasizes addressing the root cause with minimal force or intervention. Central to all these efforts is the need to identify the key reasons as prescribed by the Occam’s Razor.

There is a need for the government to issue proper guidelines on EtO treatment to all exporters and regularly keep in check that they are followed. Kriti Mehrotra, Director of Organic Tattva says, “Stringent government checks should be done before export to ensure that the truly good quality brands emerge in the market.”

Samir Patel, Managing Director of Gajanand Foods comments, ”There should be an increased focus on regulations at the common place where the raw materials are sourced, India should take a lesson from Australia in regulating pesticide level right from the source.” The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) regulates the safe and correct use of pesticides in New SouthWales, Australia, right from the point of sale, under the Pesticides Act 1999.

India’s pesticide regulations, governed by the Insecticides Act of 1968 and Insecticides Rules of 1971, are under review to modernize and align with current requirements. The proposed Pesticide Management Bill of 2020 aims to update these regulations for enhanced user and environmental protection. However, challenges such as the absence of mandatory provisions for personal protective equipment (PPE) and training, difficulties in challenging pesticide registrations, and enforcing consumer protection laws, underscore the need for improvements. Advocates urge stricter regulations aligned with global standards to promote sustainable agriculture and bolster safety measures.

The unmonitored application of a lot of harmful pesticides continues to date, and needs to be curbed at the farm level. Data from the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare indicated an annual usage of approximately 60,000 tonnes of chemical pesticides from 2017-18 to 2021-22. It is important to ensure that farmers limit the usage of pesticides. At the same time, pesticide companies should be encouraged to follow ethical marketing practices.

FSSAI has in fact assured that India has among the most stringent MRL standards across the world, which are fixed at different levels for different commodities based on risk assessments. For example, the use of pesticide monocrotophos is allowed on different crops with different MRLs such as rice at 0.03mg/kg, citrus fruits at 0.2mg/kg, coffee beans at 0.1 mg/kg and cardamom 0.5mg/kg, chilli at 0.2mg/kg.

Even as India is tackling the various challenges of MRLs and providing necessary guidance and handholding to exporters and farmers, the country’s official position on MRLs is that they can be trade restrictive, and act as non-tariff barriers to international trade, as stated in a submission to the WTO. Frequent changes can particularly impact exporters from developing countries, especially given the limited time for compliance. It recommends for every country to align with Food Agriculture Organisation and Codex, as opposed to a hazard-based approach. This would indeed be a better framework in the interest of all trading partners.

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