The European Commission’s health and safety unit has revealed progress has been made in India’s controls of Salmonella in sesame seeds but more needs to be done.

A DG Sante audit in November 2022 covered Salmonella contamination of sesame seeds and touched on ethylene oxide. In September 2020, ethylene oxide was detected by Belgian officials in sesame seeds from India. Use of the substance on foodstuffs is not permitted in Europe.

The audit team said Indian authorities had made progress to address two recommendations put forward in the previous audit in 2017 but raised another two points.

The assessment found India’s system cannot verify, because of a lack of traceability to farms, that sesame seeds are produced under conditions that comply with EU hygiene rules. Also, shortcomings related to adequate temperatures during the hulling or drying phases do not guarantee they are effective in reducing the Salmonella risk.

Data provided by Indian authorities showed almost 29,000 tons of sesame seeds were exported to the EU in 2021, which is down from more than 57,000 tons in 2020. EU rules require sesame seeds from India to be tested for Salmonella and pesticide residues before export. Analytical reports need to be attached to import documents. Also, 20 percent of consignments are tested at EU borders.

Tackling ethylene oxide problem
In 2019, the Indian Oilseeds and Produce Export Promotion Council (IOPEPC) drafted a procedure for control of Salmonella contamination and residues of pesticides, including ethylene oxide, in sesame seeds for export to the EU. This was updated in January 2021.

Firms reported a reduction of up to 70 percent in export volume to the EU after ethylene oxide was detected, and mainly hulled sesame seeds were sent. The ethylene oxide incident was the biggest food recall operation in EU history, according to the 2021 Alert and Cooperation Network report.

Three of four exporters visited said some buyers in the United States and Canada require ethylene oxide treatment of sesame seeds prior to export. IOPEPC told auditors that, since December 2020, such treatments are performed in India by external service providers at dedicated premises. Treated lots are exported directly from these premises to exclude cross-contamination with consignments destined for the EU.

IOPEPC managed in an effective way to eliminate lots contaminated with ethylene oxide from being exported to the EU, according to the report.

Five Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications followed up during the audit, plus 16 of 18 notices in 2021 and 2022, were because of Salmonella contamination of hulled sesame seeds. This indicates that in several processing companies, the hulling and drying process is not working properly or that the post-hulling and drying processes allow recontamination of hulled sesame seeds, said auditors.

Indian officials said the drying process of each registered unit for ensuring the elimination of Salmonella would be validated before the end of September 2023 and verification of temperature records would be added to a checklist.

Three businesses visited were involved in RASFF notifications for Salmonella in 2022. Root cause analyses revealed non-compliances were caused by a lack of cleaning equipment, a damaged roof, infestations of birds, and hygiene of staff. Issues were corrected by blocking openings, providing hygiene training to employees, and improving personal hygiene equipment. However, based on root cause analysis reports provided, auditors did not see the exact source for Salmonella contamination had been identified. The analysis also did not include sampling.

Dairy findings
Another audit in India in September 2022 covered dairy products. It took place after one plant expressed interest in exporting to Europe. Positives included a clear structure and line of command at authorities and sufficient legal powers to carry out regular inspections.

However, conditions for the production of dairy products for export and raw milk quality were not in line with EU requirements, and there were issues with official controls and certification arrangements.

Export Inspection Council instructions include many relevant EU requirements but did not cover the use of additives, environmental sampling for Listeria monocytogenes and some points on raw milk. This has since been amended.

In the dairy plant visited, raw milk that didn’t comply with temperature requirements was accepted for further processing based on results for other parameters such as acidity. Indian officials said raw milk not meeting standards should not be allowed for further processing.

Total plate counts in raw milk delivered in the dairy were consistently between 10 to 45 times higher than the EU limit. In one collection center, during a summer month, it was 259 times higher. The business said that to cope with the problem and ensure the safety of products, higher temperatures are used during milk pasteurization or a second pasteurization takes place.

Contrary to the overall satisfactory outcome of official control reports, the audit team noted major hygiene, maintenance and procedural shortcomings in the establishment visited. Issues included surfaces not well maintained with damaged walls and ceilings, rust and peeling paint above exposed dairy products, and dirty production areas.

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