The Indian Masala Row: Why Are Top Spice Brands Under Scanner?
Image Credit: Everest and MDH are India's top two spice brands.

Asli masale sach sach…” This popular tagline of MDH is currently in question ever since the popular spice brand was embroiled in a controversy surrounding its ingredients and their health impact. The top two Indian spice companies - Everest and MDH - are facing allegations of contamination in some of their spice blends.

Hong Kong and Singapore put on hold the sale of three spice mixes of MDH along with one of Everest’s. Their routine inspections revealed that these spice blends contained ethylene oxide, a pesticide known for causing cancer. This month, Nepal has also ordered a ban on these spices owing to the ongoing situation.

Let’s take a closer look:

How it all began?

On April 5, Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety (CFS) proscribed local consumers from using MDH’s Sambhar Masala Powder, Madras Curry Powder, Curry Powder, and Everest’s Fish Curry Masala. Under its Food Surveillance Programme, CFS collected samples of these three spice blends from three different retail outlets, and upon testing the samples were found to contain ethylene oxide.

“The CFS has informed the vendors concerned of the irregularities and instructed them to stop the sale and remove from shelves the affected products,” CFS’s official statement read.

Singapore had also flagged the pesticide’s presence in a fish curry powder manufactured by Everest. Singapore Food Agency, on April 18, directed a comprehensive recall of Everest spices from the shelves across the country, a WION report said. In a statement, SFA said that while ethylene oxide is used for sterilisation of spices, it was found in quantities beyond the permissible level in Everest spices. "There is no immediate risk to consumption of food. Therefore, exposure to this substance should be minimised as much as possible," the statement further added.

Following Hong Kong and Singapore's move, Nepal has also banned the import of MDH and Everest spices in the market. Speaking to ANI, the spokesperson of Nepal’s Food Control and Quality department said, “Everest and MDH brand spices which are being imported in Nepal have been banned from import. This comes after the news about traces of harmful chemicals in the spices, ban on import was imposed a week earlier and we also have banned the sales of it in the market.” There are tests currently being done in the county for traces of ethylene oxide in these spices, and the ban will continue until the final reports come in.

How did the spice companies respond to the allegations?

Everest, on April 23, said that their spices have not been banned in either country and that their products are safe. “This is a standard procedure and not a ban. Only one out of 60 Everest products have been held for examination," the company’s spokesperson said in an official statement.

On April 28, MDH responded saying the allegations were “baseless and unsubstantiated”. "We do not use ethylene oxide at any stage of our spice production. Our products adhere to stringent health and safety standards both in India and internationally," the spice giant clarified in a statement. MDH further said that neither the Spice Board of India nor the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) had been intimated by Hong Kong or Singapore regarding these findings.

According to a report by BBC, India is the world's largest spice producer and exports nearly US$ 4 billion worth of spices every year. Everest and MDH (Mahashian Di Hatti) are the top two spice brands of India with a massive clientele not just in the country but across the globe. 

Food safety concerns with Indian spices in the past

It is not the first time these spices have been brought under the scanner. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration {FDA) issued a recall of Everest spices after it found traces of Salmonella, a group of bacteria known to cause several gastrointestinal illnesses. Since 2020, the US has been rejecting every export shipment of MDH for the same reasons, a Business Standard report states. 

The FDA, upon thoroughly inspecting MDH’s manufacturing plant in January 2022, found out that the “plant did not have adequate sanitary facilities and accommodations” and that the plant’s “equipment and utensils were not designed and constructed to be adequately cleaned or maintained to protect against contamination”.

What does India have to say?

In the wake of subsequent contamination allegations from Hong Kong and Singapore, a pan-India inspection drive was reportedly conducted where the manufacturing units of various spice companies in India were visited and samples were collected from across the country. The Hindu says that the said invigilation was conducted by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and as part of it the body collected samples from two manufacturing units of Everest and 11 of MDH’s. Over 300 samples were collected from other spice brands as well. 

These collected samples were analysed for compliance with various safety and quality parameters such as moisture content, insect and rodent contamination, heavy metals, aflatoxins, microbiological contaminants and pesticide residues including ethylene oxide at NABL-accredited laboratories. 

According to a report by Business Today, FSSAI has not found any traces of ethylene oxide from the samples collected so far. There are more test results expected in the coming days.

How has this impacted the Indian spice market?

Following the allegations of contamination, India’s Spice Board issued mandatory testing for ethylene oxide complying with international standards. It is important to note that ethylene oxide (ETO) is used as a sterilising agent for spices across the globe. But the maximum permissible level for the compound is different for each country, which is where the issue gets complicated.

Speaking to Mint, two officials from the Ministry of Commerce suggested that Indian spice standards have improved. “The failure rate of our spices, at 0.2%, is much better than the international average and significantly lower than the 0.73% rejection rate of food consignments entering India," said one of the officials.

In fact, it’s rather surprising that despite the ongoing controversy, the Indian spice market has shown upward growth. According to a Mint report, the spice exports from India increased from last year’s US$ 3.76 billion to US$ 4.25 billion.