Thousands of foods recalled in year of ethylene oxide ‘scandal’

The use of ethylene oxide for the disinfection of foodstuffs is not permitted because it is classed as a carcinogen and mutagen

Food and feed risk notices reported by EU countries to the European Commission fell by 6% in 2020, but were dominated by the ethylene oxide in sesame seeds from India, one of the longest-ongoing food recalls of the year.

Malta and other EU countries are facing more ethylene oxide recalls after the substance was detected in a food additive used in a range of products.

Belgium first raised the alarm in September 2020 about ethylene oxide in products from India with sesame seeds. Since then reports have climbed to 603; and over half of the EU’s annual import of 70,000 tons of sesame comes from India.

Thousands of conventional and organic products with long shelf-life dates such as cereals, chocolate, biscuits, bread, crackers, sesame oil, bagels, and Asian dishes have been affected. They also cover other items such as turmeric, ginger, psyllium, okra, dried shallots, rice or tea, food supplements and the food additive locust bean gum.

“This is what having food sovereignty in one’s country means: having the control over what people are eating. And yet we import 80% of our food and that’s how sovereign we indeed are,” the Maltese farming association Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi said on Facebook. “And yet people tend to be surprised when a miniscule amount of fresh Maltese produce is found to have pesticide residue.”

It is thought ethylene oxide was used to stop the growth of Salmonella during the storage of sesame seeds in India.

But the use of ethylene oxide for disinfection of food is not permitted in Europe, where it is used to control insects as a fumigant for spices, seasonings, and foodstuffs.

Ethylene oxide was also recently found in the additive locust bean gum, a thickening agent used in foods like ice cream, breakfast cereals, meat products, confectionery, fermented milk products and cheese. Hundreds of such products were recalled from the market.

Scandal, says NGO

The NGO Foodwatch insists that non-compliant products containing ingredients illegally treated with ethylene oxide could continue to be sold without consumers being informed in certain EU states.

France has withdrawn over 6,200 products since 2020, but it was only in late June that the European Commission has tried to harmonise the responses to food scandal. “According to several documents that Foodwatch has been able to consult, the Commission and the Member States are seriously considering relaxing the recalls by letting onto the European market products illegally treated with ethylene oxide, but for which operators have not been able to measure this contamination when it is below the detectable threshold,” the NGO said,.

“For Foodwatch, this precedent is unacceptable,” Foodwatch spokesperson Ingrid Kragl said.

Consumption of EtOx

Experts say there is no safe level of exposure for consumers from ethylene oxide, which means any such product on the EU market must be withdrawn if it contains the substance.

While consumption of foods containing ethylene oxide doesn’t pose an acute risk to health, there is an increased risk if contaminated foods are consumed over a long period of time with officials not certain when contamination started.

In the EU, the use of ethylene oxide for the disinfection of foodstuffs is not permitted because it is classed as a carcinogen and mutagen. The maximum residue limit for sesame seeds is set at 0.05 milligrams per kilogram. Use is allowed in the Unites States at 7 mg/kg for sesame seeds. Levels found by Belgium were as high as 186 mg/kg but mostly between 0.1 and 10 mg/kg. Some batches exceeded the maximum limit by more than 1,000 times.

A report from the EU Reference Laboratory for Residues of Pesticides said it is unknown for how long ethylene oxide-fumigation has been in use or increasingly applied to sesame seeds in India but experts suspect it has been common practice for years.

Most non-compliant products from India

The European Commission strengthened checks on sesame seeds from India in October 2020 with regulation requiring they are tested prior to export to the EU.

In 2020, there were 3,862 original notifications sent through the European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) compared to 4,118 in 2019. The number of alert notifications, implying a serious health risk of a product, rose by 2% to almost 1,400.

Close to 500 notifications concerned India, almost 400 for products from Turkey, more than 200 for China while the U.S. had 161 and Brazil was behind more than 100 notifications.