The European Commission has added ethylene oxide to a list of pesticides that should be tested for following the substance being behind thousands of recalls in recent years.

New legislation means European countries must take and test certain food samples for ethylene oxide from 2023 until 2026.

It shall be analyzed in and on dried beans, rye, and rice in 2023, wheat in 2024; barley and oats in 2025; and dried beans, rye, and brown rice again in 2026. The lot to be sampled is chosen randomly.

The aim is to ensure compliance with maximum residue levels of pesticides and to assess consumer exposure to pesticide residues in food of plant and animal origin.

Member states should submit by the end of August in each year the information concerning the previous calendar year.

The scale of ethylene oxide incident
In September 2020, ethylene oxide was detected in sesame seeds from India. The substance was later found in other raw materials such as herbs, spices, and locust bean gum, a type of thickening agent used in ice cream and other foods. The use of ethylene oxide to disinfect foodstuffs is not permitted in Europe.

There were at least six meetings at the European level with some countries unhappy with how the issue was handled. It prompted the biggest food recall operation in EU history, according to the 2021 Alert and Cooperation Network (ACN) report. 

In response, the EU Commission tightened official controls on certain foods imported into Europe. The latest rules cover different products and countries including vanilla extract from the United States, locust bean products from Morocco and Malaysia, tomato ketchup and other tomato sauces from Mexico, and calcium carbonate from India.

In the summer of 2021, EU countries moved from zero tolerance to a fine-tuned approach for products containing the substance. When ethylene oxide is found in a raw material, companies have to check whether it will also be in the final product. Only final products containing ethylene oxide above the limit are recalled from consumers. This led to a sharp decline in the number of recalls but a few still occurred in 2023.

Other pesticides and products
The new EU regulation covers more than 100 pesticides to be analyzed in products of plant origin from 2024 to 2026. It mentions substances like chlorpyrifos, glyphosate, and folpet in foods such as bananas, melons, tomatoes, onions, and carrots.

About 30 pesticides are listed to be screened for in products of animal origin. They include DDT, fipronil, and Lindane in items such as chicken eggs, cow’s milk, and poultry fat.

Also, in 2024 each member state shall take and analyze 10 samples of processed cereal-based baby food. In 2025, the focus is 10 samples of foods for infants and young children other than infant formula, follow-on formula, and processed cereal-based baby food, and in 2026 five samples of infant formula and follow-on formula should be tested.

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