Sesame seeds are one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world and are widely used for their oil, flavor, and nutritional value. The major share of food-grade sesame seed in the European market is used in the baking and confectionary industry. In the European Union (EU), around 50% of sesame seeds are used as toppings for bread, buns, bagels, pretzels, crackers, and desserts such as halva, as illustrated in Figure 1. Another 35% is devoted to ingredients for food processing such as in a salad, sushi, ground sesame paste (tahini), and hummus.
Figure 1. Share of Sesame Seed Use in the EU
However, the sesame seed market has experienced a significant shift, leading to a decline in demand in a major part of the EU in 2021 and 2022. This decline is evidenced by reduced imports from all major supplying countries as illustrated in Figure 2. The primary reasons for this decline are the health concerns over potential pesticide contaminants associated with sesame seeds and the rise in sesame-related allergies.
The EU's sesame seed market relies heavily on imports, with over 80% of its supply sourced from third-party countries. India previously stood as a key supplier until 2020, contributing 60,000 metric tons (mt), nearly half of the EU's direct imports. However, due to pesticide contamination issues, EU imports from India drastically fell by 70% year-on-year (YoY) to 17,903 mt in 2021. Some Indian sesame seed batches contained remarkably high levels of ethylene oxide, surpassing the maximum residue limit (MRL) by over 1,000 times, as notified through the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) in September 2020. Ethylene oxide is not approved for use in plant protection products. Consequently, the EU has tightened regulations on sesame seed imports, significantly reducing imports from India. This shift in import trends includes decreased imports from India and increased shipments from other markets like Pakistan, Nigeria, and Türkiye.
Figure 2. Top Markets of EU Sesame Seed Imports 2018-2022
Aside from concerns regarding ethylene oxide, the rise in sesame-related allergies has prompted caution among consumers. According to Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, the prevalence of sesame allergies in the EU ranges from 0.03% to 0.07%. Despite its relatively low number, consumers still remain wary. In the United States (US), sesame seed was added as the ninth major food allergen when the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) policy became effective on Jan. 1, 2023. Sesame is now required to be listed on food labels as a major allergen in plain English by food manufacturers. Before 2023, this was a voluntary requirement for manufacturers. This regulatory adjustment aims to inform consumers with sesame allergies through explicit allergen labeling on packaging.
Figure 3. Global Prevalence of Sesame Allergy
Health concerns over potential contaminations and the emergence of allergies linked to sesame seeds have propelled the EU to impose stricter regulations on sesame seed imports. Rigorous testing for Salmonella and pesticide residues is mandatory for Indian sesame seeds destined for the EU market, with analytical reports attached to import documentation. Additionally, 20% of shipments undergo testing at EU borders. Similar stringent standards exist for sesame seeds originating from Pakistan, demanding the absence of Salmonella and E.coli for EU entry.
Figure 4. Import Regulation of Pakistani Sesame Seed
With ongoing efforts to diversify sourcing strategies, and stringent import regulations, there are signs of a recovery in sesame seed demand within the EU market based on 2023 import figures. Greece, the largest consumer and importer of sesame seeds in the EU imported 23,852 mt of sesame seeds in the first eight months of 2023, a slight increase of 3.1% YoY. Sesame seeds in Greek products are used in tahini (sesame paste), halva (sesame dessert), and koulouri (sesame-covered bread rings). This anticipated recovery aligns with the EU market's adaptability and responsiveness to challenges, emphasizing the importance of maintaining stringent food safety standards while catering to evolving consumer preferences.
Figure 5. Monthly Trends of Greek Sesame Seed Imports 2022-2023
However, a complete resurgence to previous consumption levels might take time, as consumers evolve preferences and prioritize safety and quality in food products. This emphasizes the necessity for stakeholders to maintain agility, adaptability, and a focus on consumer health concerns while upholding stringent food safety standards throughout the supply chain.