The European Commission has demanded a recall of food products containing sesame seeds from India due to ethylene oxide contamination. Starting September 2020, the EU has imposed stringent import regulations on Indian sesame seeds. The article looks into the severity of the problem and states the potential effects of India's sesame seed contamination and the EU's response.

The European Commission has demanded a recall on food products containing sesame seeds from India due to ethylene oxide contamination starting September 2020; The recalling process is on-going with almost 500 reports received by the first week of February 2021. Ethylene oxide is an odorless gas that may cause cancer when consumed in large amounts. Under EU regulation, the maximum residue limit for ethylene oxide in sesame seeds is at 0.05 milligrams per kilogram. However, some batches of sesame seeds from India had 1000 times higher ethylene oxide levels than the limit. Even organic sesame seeds had traces of contamination. Mark Stauber of the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office suggested that the contamination may have come from containers that were fumigated with ethylene oxide, whose usage is banned in the EU, in order to prevent cases of Salmonella growth during storage.

Gravity of the Problem

The global sesame seed market has been showing remarkable growth in recent years with a global export value of $3.6 billion in 2019, increasing from $1.9 billion in 2012. In this thriving market, India supplied 14.9% of the 2019 export value, being second to the largest sesame seed exporter in the world market. Exported sesame seeds are often utilized as an ingredient for processed products, such as cereals, chocolates, biscuits, bread, crackers, and bagels.

The wide reach of sesame seeds across the food industry, however, further complicates the process of tracking down and solving the contamination problem. Imposing any restrictions would not only affect the sesame seed exporters but also multiple businesses along the value chain. This is especially true for the EU, as 50% of its annual sesame seed imports bought from India in 2019, where it is an irreplaceable ingredient for their daily foods such as bread and cereals. For instance, processed products like Schnitzer gluten-free hamburger buns were recalled due to contaminated Indian sesame seeds used in their buns. Similarly, a number of other processed products have been recalled, which shows the broad scope of the food industry that the contaminated Indian sesame seeds have affected,

Sesame seed exporting countries, 2019

Source: Tridge

India, aside from being a major exporter of sesame seeds, is the fourth largest importer of sesame seeds with a global share of 5.5%, USD 198.55 million in value. The country sourced mainly from Sudan (USD 115.3 million), Nigeria (USD 40 million), and Somalia (USD 20 million) in 2019. Therefore, exported Indian sesame seeds can be assumed to be a mixture of harvests from India, Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia. With varying origins of sesame seeds, identifying the root problem, directing responsibilities and implementing regulations have become more challenging. However, a bigger responsibility to solve the problem is given to India, as a major importer and exporter of sesame seeds.

Sesame seed importing countries, 2019

Source: Tridge

Ironically, the European countries that abhor pesticides and reprimanded Indian sesame seeds from entering their borders are actually the biggest exporters of toxic pesticides, such as Atrazine and Ametryn, to low-income countries, including Sudan and Nigeria -top sesame seed exporters to India. Although ethylene oxide is not part of the exported pesticides, the hypocritical behavior of the EU may encourage uneducated and excessive usage of pesticides and lethal chemicals, especially in the case of developing countries that have limited awareness and weak regulations on pesticide usage.

Map of pesticide exports to Nigeria and Sudan

Source: Tridge, Unearthed

What’s next

Currently, the EU is imposing stricter regulations on sesame seed imports from India starting October 2020. Some of the new regulations include prior testing with an official certificate which shows that, upon sampling, the sesame seeds meet the EU legislation on maximum residue levels of pesticides. The number of physical and identity checks at the border control posts increased to 50% of all consignments. However, the contamination issue will not be eradicated soon by only setting India with more stringent regulations, especially with the current mass uproar by the Indian farmers due to the government’s new farming reforms.

If the EU continues to lash on Indian sesame seed exporters, the Indian sesame seeds are expected to experience upward pressure due to the increased frequency, and thus, the cost of sample testing and documentation. With India constituting more than half of the EU's sesame seed imports, the EU consumers are left with no choice but to incur higher expenses in purchasing sesame seeds. It is not just the EU consumers that will be affected once the sesame seed production and exports of India are interrupted. According to the Sesame Seed Report by Tridge, sesame seed price volatility is high, ranging between 25%-30%, and this fluctuation is dependent on the major producers and importers, specifically India and China. The impact of the contamination case is expected to continue until a concrete solution and an agreement on chemical usage has been made among the countries involved.

Sources

  • Swiss Info. Contaminated sesame seeds from India trigger mass product recall
  • Unearthed. Thousands of tonnes of banned pesticides shipped to poorer countries from British and European factories
  • Food Safety News. Contaminated sesame seed recalls continue in Europe



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