A European alert food system is nearing 500 reports because of the unauthorized substance ethylene oxide in products with sesame seeds.

Belgium made the first alert in early September 2020 in the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) concerning 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.

More than half of the EU’s annual imports of 70,000 tons of sesame comes from India.

Additional checks

A recall by Ikea

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 to certify compliance and include an official certificate. The rules also increased checks at border control posts with controls needed on 50 percent of all consignments at the EU border. They are already on the list of products subject to extra checks because of Salmonella.

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

Suppliers who delivered contaminated batches include Dhairya International, Nature Bio Foods Ltd., Agri Food Products, GSV International, Shyam Industries and Dhaval Agri Exports.

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.

Ethylene oxide is a volatile and reactive compound that only remains in tiny amounts in treated foods, according to officials. Detecting and calculating the amount of the substance in food is a complicated process that, for financial reasons, is only used for individual cases in routine food monitoring programs, according to CVUA Stuttgart.

Other foods or countries involved?

One of the recalled items

Member state experts, the EU Commission, and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) held a food and feed crisis coordinators meeting in October. Some countries called for reinforced vigilance on products like pepper and spices where past analysis also showed ethylene oxide.

In late November 2020 there was a meeting in the phytopharmaceuticals and residues section of the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed committee that mentioned ethylene oxide.

One country said its national assessment indicated the current MRL of 0.05 mg/kg may not sufficiently protect some consumer groups. Another reported finding ethylene oxide in products not from India but they were compliant with the associated MRLs.

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.

An assessment in Belgium indicated a potential chronic risk. This means that if a consumer was to have the implicated seeds every day of their life, and in large quantities, there could be a risk to health. An assessment by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and Wageningen Food Safety Research found it was “hardly possible” to eat safe quantities of bread, crackers, or cookies with sesame seeds containing ethylene oxide at a level of 10 mg/kg.

In November, the Food Standards Agency said it was not advocating a full consumer recall of affected products and favored a withdrawal as the risk to individuals is low and most products already purchased are likely to have been consumed, making such a recall disproportionate.

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