The ethylene oxide food scare has continued in March, with more than ten alerts in the EU of the contaminant posing a serious threat in foods.
Banned in Europe in 1981 due to the risks from its toxicity, ethylene oxide has been found in thousands of foods, with the contamination mostly traced back to sesame seeds imported from India.
Although detected in some foods at up to thousands of times the maximum residue limit allowed in the EU, the contaminant is classified as only a potential “chronic” risk, because a consumer would have to eat the contaminated seeds every day of their life, and in large quantities, for a risk to health.
Nevertheless, there has been a massive product recall, including recall of some foods marketed as organic.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has said ethylene oxide is not authorised for use in foods sold in the EU.
“Although the consumption of the contaminated product does not pose an immediate risk to health, there may be health issues if there is continued consumption of ethylene oxide over a long period of time.
“Therefore, exposure to this substance needs to be minimised.”
In November, the UK’s Food Standards Agency asked businesses that had received batches of potentially contaminated sesame seeds to withdraw any products containing them from sale, telling them that a number of batches of sesame seeds from India had been found to have a pesticide, ethylene oxide, present which can be harmful and is not approved for use on food in the UK or the EU.
The Food Standards Agency did not advocate a full consumer recall of affected products, as the risk to individual consumers was low, and the majority of products already purchased were likely to have been consumed
Based on the likely level of exposure through consumption of affected foods, the risk to consumers is low, said the Agency.
If any affected bakery waste were to be used in animal feed products, producers would need to ensure compliance with the default residue limit of 0.02 mg/kg for ethylene oxide in animal feed, noted the UK’s Food Standards Agency.
This month, in Poland and Germany, ethylene oxide was found in hulled sesame seeds from India.
In Spain, frozen pre-cooked bread was withdrawn from the market, because it contained sesame seeds contaminated with ethylene oxide.
There was a similar withdrawal from the market in Belgium, of frozen bagels.
In France, ethylene oxide was found in a seeds mix used for frozen croissants, and in ground sumac (a spice made from dried berries) from Turkey.
Belgium also had a withdrawal from the market of spice mixes with sesame seeds from France, possibly contaminated with ethylene oxide; organic biscuits from France containing contaminated sesame seeds; and organic tofu and basil ravioli from France, containing sesame seeds possibly contaminated with ethylene oxide.
There were also two cases this month in France of ethylene oxide found in okras from India.
Ethylene oxide gas has disinfectant properties against bacteria, fungi and viruses, and is widely used to sterilise materials and instruments used in surgery and for medical devices, but it is not allowed for food use in Europe.
Although once used in the EU to decontaminate silos used for crop storage, it was banned in Europe in 1981 due to the risks from its toxicity, and is not approved for any plant protection products in the EU.
Ethylene oxide is classified in fact as a category 1B mutagen, carcinogen, and toxic compound for reproduction.
However, its use is permitted in food crops in some other parts of the world.
And these foods have found their way to Europe.
In particular, the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed system has notified the entry of multiple batches of sesame seeds contaminated with ethylene oxide.
They came from India mainly.
More than half of the EU’s annual imports of 70,000 tons of sesame comes from India.
There have been over 500 reports across the EU of ethylene oxide contamination in foods since early September, in the EU’s RASFF system.
Ireland has had its share of reports and product recalls.
The scare has spread worldwide, with numerous reports in Australia, for example.
Belgium sounded the alarm in early September, 2020, reporting pesticide residues in various lots of sesame seeds from India.
Three months later, most European countries have been affected.
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.
After the alarm was sounded, the European Commission strengthened checks on sesame seeds from India in October 2020, making regulations requiring that they are tested and officially certified prior to export to the EU, and requiring increased checks at the EU’s border control posts on 50% of all consignments at the EU border.
There had previously been problems with sesame seeds due to Salmonella contamination.
It may be that ethylene oxide was used to stop the growth of Salmonella during the storage of sesame seeds in India.
But the cure has turned out to be worse than the problem.
The EU maximum residue limit in sesame seeds of ethylene oxide is set at 0.05 milligrams per kilogram.
In contrast, 7 mg/kg is allowed in the United States for sesame seeds.
Levels found by Belgium early in the food scare were as high as 186 mg/kg, but mostly between 0.1 and 10 mg/kg.
In March, contaminations detected have ranged from 0.066 to 24 mg/kg.
Ethylene oxide is a volatile and reactive compound that only remains in tiny amounts in treated foods.
Products recalled in Ireland have included organic and non-organic tahinis (a Middle Eastern condiment made from toasted ground hulled sesame), sesame seeds, gluten-free organic hamburger buns, crispbreads, seed mix, bakery product, muesli bars, rice cakes, snack mix, cashew sauce, and salmon fillets with hoisin sauce (sesame seed is one of the sauce ingredients).
Other products withdrawn from the market across the EU include spice mixes, multigrain bread, granola, sesame oil, sesame salad dressing, crackers, ground turmeric, breadsticks, pastry products, ginger powder, and chocolate with sesame seeds.