In today’s Finshots, we explain the controversy surrounding some of India’s premier spice makers.

The Story

Indian spice makers are facing the heat.

First came the news that Singapore and Hong Kong banned certain spices from MDH and Everest after their regulators found a potentially cancer-causing substance in the powders.

Then it emerged that the European Union has its own qualms. They found the same substance in chilli peppers and peppercorn samples from India. And nearly 60 herbs and spices were found to be contaminated.

And all this has spooked the US too. Reuters reported that the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now evaluating products from Everest and MDH. Even Australia is looking into the matter now.

But what’s this alleged cancer-causing substance found in the latest bit of investigations, you ask?

It’s something called ethylene oxide (EtO).

This is a flammable, colourless, sweet-smelling gas that is used to produce other chemicals, including antifreeze. If it is used in smaller quantities, it even helps sterilize medical equipment and works as a pesticide. And that’s thanks to its ability to damage DNA. It can rip apart cell membranes and kill organisms.

Now that also means food processors love it. The gas works wonders to control the growth of microbes. And that means a longer shelf-life for products too.

But these characteristics also make EtO quite dangerous. It can cause cancer. It leads to organ damage. And it has been linked to spontaneous abortion, genetic damage, nerve damage, peripheral paralysis, muscle weakness, and impaired thinking and memory.

Sounds quite ominous, doesn’t it?

So yeah, you can see why people are scared about EtO. Most countries have some sort of a limit on how much of its residue can remain in food substances. And it seems like this time, our spice makers crossed that threshold. Or at least that’s what international agencies say.

Now you can bet that Everest and MDH have vehemently denied the allegations. They swear they’re operating by the book and there’s no hanky panky going on.

And sure, that could very well be the case. Even if EtO found its way into the powders, it could be quite accidental. But maybe this should’ve been expected. Because here’s what the US FDA said in 2022 after an inspection of an MDH plant.

“[the] plant did not have adequate sanitary facilities and accommodations’”…[And] “equipment and utensils were not designed and constructed to be adequately cleaned or maintained to protect against contamination”.

That’s not a good look. After all, we don’t want such situations where an international finger points at us and blames us for something, right?

And that’s where the regulator might need to pay a little more attention.

It’s the Spices Board, which falls under the Commerce Ministry, that looks into the quality of exports. They’re the ones in charge. And sure, you can’t pin the blame entirely on them. It’ll be foolhardy to expect them to check each and every item that leaves the country. All they can do is lay down the rules and ensure that manufacturers stay honest. But maybe these circumstances call for the Spices Board to step up the random checks and tests?

That might be the only way we can avoid these situations.

But beyond exports, we might have a domestic problem at hand too.

Because here’s the unfortunate truth. This isn’t the first time our packaged spices have come under the scanner for toxic substances.

In 2014, Dr Ipsita Mazumdar, a biochemistry expert, tested popular spice brands in the chilli, cumin, curry powder, and garam masala categories from a store in Kolkata. And she found that all of them contained lead. The colouring used to give the spices a vivid orange or red hue was the culprit.

And since these packaged spices are everyday items in an Indian household, using them over time could lead to harmful effects. Especially younger children whose bodies absorb these chemicals faster. It could stunt their growth and development.

Sure, you could argue that it was a long time ago. But spice makers have been pulled up for discrepancies quite often even after that.

And things could get worse.

See, we do have a food safety regulator called the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). You’ll probably find their logo on the back of packaged foods. They’re the ones clamouring for a star-based system to rank foods on the healthy to unhealthy spectrum. And they’re the ones who wanted restaurants to display calorie counts on the menus. They’re the top dog when it comes to food in the country. And this includes spices too. So when we see the FSSAI logo on the back of a product, we sort of feel that the manufacturer will be toeing the line. Or else, they could be pulled up by the regulator and even have their licence revoked.

But the problem is that even the FSSAI might be being too adventurous now.

See, on 8th April, the regulator published an order. And one of the key elements of it was something called the maximum residue limit (MRL). This is the highest legally permissible limit of pesticides in food products. After all, if farmers use pesticides to protect their crops, you can be quite sure that some amount of it will remain within the plant. There’s a residue. And this will end up in the final product too.

And now, the FSSAI has suddenly decided to increase the limits of pesticides in herbs and spices by a whopping 10 times. From 0.01 milligrammes per kilogramme (mg/kg) to 0.1 mg/kg.


Well, that’s what people want an answer to. Otherwise, they fear that the quality of spices could deteriorate even further.

And no one wants that.

But what’s the outcome of all this going to be? Well, both the Spice Board and the FSSAI will have their work cut out for them. And we’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out.

Until then…

Don't forget to share this story on WhatsApp, LinkedIn and X.

📢Finshots is also on WhatsApp Channels. Click here to follow us and get your daily financial fix in just 3 minutes.

Why you MUST buy a term plan in your 20s 👇🏽

‌The biggest mistake you could make in your 20s is not buying term insurance early. Here's why:

1) Low premiums, forever

The same 1Cr term insurance cover will cost you far less at 25 years than at 35 years. And once these premiums are locked in, they remain the same throughout the term!

So if you’re planning on building a robust financial plan, consider buying term insurance as early as you can.

2) You might not realise that you still have dependents in your 20s

Maybe your parents are about to retire in the next few years and funding  your studies didn't allow them to grow their investments — making you  their  sole bread earner once they age.

And although no amount of money can replace you, it sure can give that added financial support in your absence.

3) Tax saver benefit

Section 80C of the Income Tax Act helps you cut down your taxable income by the     premiums paid. And what's better than saving taxes from early on in   your career?

So maybe, it's time for you to buy yourself a term  plan. And if you need any help on that front, just talk to our IRDAI-certified advisors at Ditto.

With Ditto, you get access to:

  • Spam-free advice guarantee
  • 100% free consultation from the industry's top insurance experts
  • 24/7 assistance when filing a claim from our support team

Speak to Ditto's advisors now, by clicking the link here.