EU alert over chilli powder imports
'No thank you' is the latest message from European Union headquarters in Brussels to Indian exporters of chilli powder after recent supplies were found to contain a banned red dye that could cause cancer.
Food safety standards have long been a stumbling block to Indian exporters of processed foods.
Adulteration of food is a common practice in India. A survey of domestic food adulteration showed that spices, along with milk products and cereals, are the worst affected.
Ironically, the chilli powder alert has come soon after Indian food products cleared the European Spice Association's requirements. These standards, which specify that spices must be free of adulteration, had been accepted by the Spices Board of India.
However, some consignments tested recently were found to contain Sudan red 1, a carcinogenic chemical normally used in shoe polish, oils, waxes and fuel. A new directive from the European Union says that more stringent standards will now have to be used to regulate Indian chilli powder imports.
The negative publicity will be a blow to India's burgeoning food-processing industry, now the country's fifth largest, representing 6.3 per cent of GDP and 13 per cent of exports. Spice exports alone surpassed US$468 million in 2001. According to India's Spices Board, 46 per cent of the spices and herbs imported globally every year come from India.
The government has been trying to boost exports by urging manufacturers to ensure that their levels of hygiene and safety meet the rising standards expected by health-conscious European consumers.
Some Indian analysts argue that certain western food-hygiene standards are designed to protect domestic producers in a 'veiled' kind of protectionism. One example often cited is a European Union regulation that dairy products should be manufactured from milk sourced from cows kept on farms and milked mechanically. This virtually precludes milk imports from India, where production is a small-scale activity.
But the presence of a banned chemical in chilli powder is likely to be viewed as a clear violation of basic standards of food hygiene.