Nutrition Meets Food Science

Spice mixes: a matter of risk communication

Social media often sounds more frightening than it should. Not everyone would be familiar with how risk-based food safety Acts protect consumers. Words like ban and carcinogen become keywords for the reader’s attention. Only a month earlier, the CFS recalled oyster mushroom powder from another country for the presence of ethylene oxide. In September 2020, Belgium raised the alarm about ethylene oxide residues in sesame seeds exported from India. Such alerts and recalls are routine.

Despite food control systems, food failures occur throughout the world. When failures occur in whichever marketplace, country legislation works to restrict access to these products and stop consumption. Every country, including India, has recall protocols and shares information when these products travel elsewhere.  For example, ethylene oxide is not authorized in the EU and if its presence is detected, under the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), information reaches distant markets and countries. Risk-based food law is what keeps consumers safe. Putting out information on a food failure by a regulatory authority is risk communication. The Centre for Food Safety (Hong Kong) has done just that.

The Centre of Food Safety (CFS) issued an alert – not ban –  on two Indian brands’ pre-packaged spice mixes after samples collected from retail stores were found contaminated with ethylene oxide, classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. After that, it set into motion a recall process for the removal of the implicated packages from distributors, and retail outlets, including advice to consumers to refrain from consuming them. It will follow up until the recall is complete. As the implicated packages were imported into Singapore, they issued similar directions.  Note the communication is factual and specific actions stated. Typically, an alert is given when a hazardous substance is found, or its possible presence is suspected.

Classified as a Group 1 carcinogen means there is enough evidence to conclude ethylene oxide can cause cancer in humans. Group 1 has 128 entries of substances and chemicals associated with certain habits that can cause cancers: smoking, betel quid with and without tobacco,  aflatoxin, areca nut and even alcohol. While all are harmful, setting the context is relevant. The list describes the level of evidence that something can cause cancer, not how likely it will cause cancer. Risk management makes the call, based on risk assessment of the substance in food.

FSSAI has aptly reacted by collecting samples of all brands, to be tested. Hopefully, we will learn not of how good or bad the collection results are but of where the weak link in the supply chain is. The safety question is how resilient is the spice supply chain where there are a multitude of operators, not all with the right skill sets. Ethylene oxide in foods is a recurring failure event, much like milk adulteration and sweets sold during festival times, requiring a different approach.

Food authorities can do more to set true narratives by pointing out that India too has a risk-based food Act (FSSA) where risk communication and recall are legislated processes as in other countries. Keeping silent allows a false narrative to flourish that does no good for the country or its Industry. India and spices are synonymous, no country mixes them better for the culinary delights that follow.  Let’s keep it that way.

Dr. Joseph Lewis

Chairman- Regulatory Affairs Committee, PFNDAI

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