Food safety and quality is the most important issue in the global food supply chain. Though India is self-sufficient in the production of most of the agricultural produces our contribution is negligible in the world market. The quality and safety of the fresh, as well as processed, have an important role in the spices export. Increasingly stringent food safety and agricultural health standards in industrialized countries pose major challenges for continued developing country success in international markets for high-value food products, such as fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, nuts, and spices.

Yet, in many cases, such standards have played a positive role, providing the catalyst and incentives for the modernization of export supply and regulatory systems and the adoption of safer and more sustainable production and processing practices. This has created an increased need for updated research and development to demonstrate and provide adequate evidence for their ability to identify and control food safety hazards and deal specifically with food quality and safety.

Major spices for exports

India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of spices and one of its leading spice exporters. It commands a formidable position in the World Spice Trade with 48% share in volume and 44% in value. During 2012-13, a total of 7,26,613 tons of spices and spice products valued Rs.12112.76 crore has been exported from the country as against 5,75,270 tons valued Rs.9783.42 crore in 2011-12, registering an all-time growth increase of 26% in volume and 24% in value. (Spices Board of India, 2014).

The major spices are black pepper (Piper nigrum), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), Cinnamomum (Cinnamomum camphora), chilly pepper (Capsicum annuum), clove (Syzygium aromaticum), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), cumin (Cuminum cyminum), garlic (Allium sativum), ginger (Zingiber officinale), turmeric (Curcuma longa), vanilla (Vanilla planifolium), nutmeg and mace (Myristica fragrans).

Value addition to Spices

In the last few years, India has shown a tremendous increase in spice value addition too. With the recent contraction of the bulk pepper trade, and with the expansion in trade in various spice oils, oleoresins, and powders, India’s trade in value-added spice products is now approaching its level of trade in bulk spices and will almost certainly surpass that in the coming years. India, however, has encountered a number of food safety problems in its spice exports including high pesticide residues, aflatoxin contamination and the use of prohibited food colorants.

Rejections and Recalls

Over an extended period, the Indian spice trade earned a reputation for product quality and marketing service. India has been encountering intensified competition in the world market for bulk spices. Recent regulatory changes in selected destination markets, together with evolving requirements among major commercial buyers have triggered a variety of responses by Indian producers and processors/exporters and by the Spices Board and other governmental agencies. Its exporters have faced increased scrutiny by buyers and regulators for product quality and microbiological or chemical contamination.

To increase competitiveness in these areas, effective use will have to be made of the installed technological capacities that have been put in place over the past decade, plus there is a need to intensify efforts to promote ‘good agricultural practices’ and improved post-harvest practices among spice growers. Furthermore, measures need to be taken to better apply and enforce regulations dealing with pesticides and domestic food safety. Given its spice industry’s past track record, India is fully expected to meet these emerging commercial and regulatory challenges.

In the mid-nineties, Indian dry chilly exports faced several rejections including rejections in Spain due to pesticide residue in excess of permissible MRL’s, and in the United States because of residues of quinalphos, a pesticide not registered in the United States. Between 1998 and 2000, Indian dry chilly exports also faced rejection in Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. due to the presence of aflatoxin. More recently, exports of chilly and curry powder faced problems due to the use of the prohibited red dye Sudan 1 (FSA. 2004).

In February 2005, a massive recall of some 600 food products took place in the UK because of the detection of Sudan 1 in Worcester sauce. The source of the Sudan 1 dye in the sauce was traced to chilly powder imported from India in 2002. This was the largest ever food recall in the U.K. and it affected all major retailers as well as large numbers of food manufacturers and foodservice companies, as the Worcester Sauces had been used in the preparation of a large number of different products. It is estimated that this recall, and associated expenses, cost the U.K. and other European food manufacturers some 200 million Euros (Jaffee, 2005).

Strategies to enhance spice export

The scenario of present post-harvest processing of spices is not encouraging in India. It leads to export rejection. Due to unscientific processing methods, large quantities of spices produced are also spoiled every year. So it is very urgent to implement developmental programmes, especially in the processing sector, to enhance the export quality of spices.

The Country could not take full advantage of the emerging opportunities in processing industry mainly for want of the domestic supply of raw material of desired quality. This is due to the unscientific application of basic inputs and poor post-harvest handling practices. Overdosage of fertilizer and chemicals, improper storage practices leading to increased fungal/mould growth, etc. are some of the examples of these unscientific practices. Unhygienic processing methods aggravated the situation.

A thorough understanding and application of good production and manufacturing practices can improve the safety and quality of spice produce and their value-added products. This will ensure higher returns and improve the economic security of spice growers and processors of the Country.

The quality of spices is assessed by its intrinsic as well as extrinsic characters. The former consists of chemical quality, i.e. the retention of chemical principles like volatile oil, alkaloids, and oleoresins while the latter emphasizes physical quality. These include appearance, texture, shape, presence or absence of unwanted things, colour, etc. In addition, certain health requirements are also implemented as export quality standard viz. pesticide residue aflatoxin, heavy metals, sulphur dioxide, solvent residues and microbiological quality.

However, physicochemical quality remains the ultimate attribute, while considering the export requirement of spices as these properties delineate its grade in the market. These qualities vary unpredictably. The quality of the food product can be maintained with the help of proper food safety and management systems like Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP).

Hazards involved in spice supply chain

The concept “hazard” in the HACCP terminology is expressed in terms of a danger to food safety from a biological, chemical or physical point of view. The term “hazard” refers to any part of a production chain or a product that has the potential to cause a safety problem.

Biological hazards:

Biological hazards can be divided into three types: bacterial, viral, and parasitic (protozoa and worms). Many HACCP programs are designed specifically around the microbiological hazards. HACCP programs address this food safety problem by assisting in the production of safe wholesome foods.

The various biological hazards identified for spice production and its supply chain are Clostridium perfringens, E. Coli, Bacillus cereus, Salmonella, S. aureus and Moulds (Aspergillus flavus). These microorganisms are entering into the processing due to the lack of GAP, GMP, and GHP. The poor storage facilities at high temperature and relative humidity provide a congenial atmosphere for the mould growth. The control mechanism will be based on the external factors under storage or handling chain along with the various stress factors applied to the spice or spice products. Various growth conditions /stress limits viz; pH, the water activity of these biological hazards is shown in Table-1.

Growth conditions for biological hazards
Table-1: Growth conditions for biological hazards

Chemical hazards:

Webster defines a hazardous chemical as any substance used in or obtained by a chemical hazard process or processes. All food products are made up of chemicals, and all chemicals can be toxic at some dosage level. However, certain hazardous chemicals are not allowed in food and others have had allowable limits established.

The two types of chemical hazards in food are naturally occurring ones and added chemicals. Both may potentially cause chemical intoxications if excessive levels are present in hazardous food. Many HACCP programs have been criticized for their relative neglect of chemical and physical hazards. Various chemical hazards like aflatoxins, artificial colours viz; sudan I, pesticide residues, heavy metal contamination, etc, in spices, are reported by many research groups.


Aflatoxins are a group of toxic metabolites produced by species of Aspergillus, specifically Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus parasiticus, and Aspergillus nomius, which were found worldwide in air and soil. Aflatoxin contamination of agricultural commodities has gained global significance as a result of their deleterious effects on human as well as animal health and its importance to international trade. Aflatoxins commonly found are aflatoxin B1, B2, G1, and G2. AFB1 is the most potent of all aflatoxins known to date and is generally found in the highest concentration in food and animal feeds.

Aflatoxins in various agricultural products can be contaminated when drying of agricultural commodities is delayed or moisture level exceeds critical values for the mold growth during storage of the crops. Especially, spices are usually produced in countries with tropical climates that have a high temperature, humidity, and rainfall (Martins et al., 2001). These climatic conditions are favorable to aflatoxin contamination.

The natural occurrence of aflatoxins in spices has been studied by several researchers. Regulatory limits for aflatoxins in some Asian and Pacific countries are given in table-2. The Alatoxin (B1) limit of Europe (5µg/Kg) is significantly less than that of India (30µg/kg). Various countries have got their own Aflatoxin levels. This clearly shows the lack of harmonization in the international market.

Regulation limits of aflatoxin subtypes and total aflatoxins
Table-2: Regulation limits of aflatoxin subtypes and total aflatoxins in Asian countries.

Sudan Red:

Sudan I (1-[(2,4-dimethylphenyl)azo]-2-naphthalenol), Sudan II (1-(phenylazo) -2-naphthol), Sudan III (1-(4-phenylazophenylazo)-2-naphthol) and Sudan IV (o-tolyazo-o-tolyazo-betanaphthol) are an azo-family of synthetic dyes that are widely used for colouring agents such as waxes, floor and shoe polishes. They are categorized as class 3 carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. As a result, Sudan dyes are illegal as additives in foodstuffs destined for human consumption according to both the FSA (Food Standards Agency, 2004) and the European Union (EU, 2004). Unfortunately, these dyes are still being used as additives in some spices (chilies) to improve the colour for commercial benefits (EU,2004).

Reports have indicated that high amounts of Sudan dyes, at least 1 g L–1, are required to have an impact on visual colour. The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of India and Rules have prescribed quality standards for spices, which state that both dried chili pods and its powder shall be free from extraneous colouring matter (PFA Act, 2005). However, the artificial coloration of chilli powder with Sudan dyes has been reported from time to time. Other Colouring agents (Sunset Yellow, Tartrazine Cochineal red, A Ponceau Methyl yellow, Azorubine, etc.)

Sunset Yellow

Sunset Yellow FCF is also known as Orange Yellow S, FD&C Yellow 6. It is a sulfonated version of Sudan I, a possible carcinogen, which is frequently present in it as an impurity. Sunset Yellow itself may be responsible for causing an allergic reaction in people with an aspirin intolerance, resulting in various symptoms including gastric upset, diarrhoea, vomiting, nettle rash (urticaria) and swelling of the skin (angioedema). It is linked to hyperactivity in young children.


Tartrazine (otherwise known as E number E102) is a synthetic, water-soluble, lemon yellow azo dye used as a food coloring. Tartrazine is a commonly used color all over the world, mainly for yellow, but can also be used with Brilliant Blue FCF (FD&C Blue 1, E133) or Green S (E142) to produce various green shades. This colouring has also been linked to hyperactivity in young children.

Ponceau 4R:

Ponceau 4R is also known as Cochineal Red A, C.I. Acid Red 18, Brilliant Scarlet 3R, Brilliant Scarlet 4R, and SX purple. Its chemical name is trisodium salt of 1-(4-sulpho-1-napthylazo)- 2-napthol- 6,8-disulphonic acid. Ponceau 4R is a red azo dye usually synthesized from coal tar which can be used in a variety of food products. Because it is an azo dye, it may elicit intolerance in people allergic to salicylates (aspirin). Additionally, it is a histamine liberator, and may intensify symptoms of asthma. Ponceau 4R is considered carcinogenic in some countries, and it is currently listed as a banned substance by the U.S.

Pesticide residues and heavy metals:

The bulk of pesticides in use are of older organophosphate or organochlorine types. While DDT was banned for agricultural use in India in 1989 (and use restricted to public health purposes, especially malaria control), it is apparently still available for use in rural areas. DDT, as well as other persistent organic pollutants (aldrin, endrin, dieldrin), are still frequently found as residues in a variety of domestic food products due to their presence in water and soil.

Chilies are one of the few spices produced in India for which agro-chemicals are commonly used. Chilies are vulnerable to a variety of pests and diseases, which can be controlled only with agrochemicals and crop rotations. Chemicals are sometimes used in the production of coriander, fennel, and other seed spices, but rarely in the production of India’s other major spices.

There exist only a handful of Codex standards for MRLs related to agrochemical use on spices. Individual countries have set MRLs themselves, generally for particular spices grown in small quantities in their own countries. For example, there are some 30–40 official MRLs for spices in the United States, Germany, Spain, and Australia—the majority related to a few individual crops.

Organo-chlorine pesticide residues have also been reported in herbal preparations, spices (Srivastava et al., 2001) and in herbal teas (Naithani and Kakkar, 2004). Organochlorine pesticides such as isoforms of hexachlorocyclohexane (HCH), metabolites of DDT, a-endosulphan and heavy metals, including non-volatile and volatile metals, have the potential to cause toxicity to liver and kidney and may impair oxygen transport in the blood.

With regard to chilies, a different approach has been taken. There are already more than 20 pesticides for which MRLs have been set in Europe, North America, or elsewhere in relation to fresh pepper. India has proposed that a dehydration factor of 10 be applied to account for the magnification of pesticide residues in dried chilies. In other words, while the established MRL for carbaryl is 5 mg/kg in fresh pepper, it would be 50 mg/kg in dried chilies (Deininger and Sur 2006). A similar approach has been proposed for other vegetables that are used as spices when dried (garlic, onion).

Physical hazards:

It is often described as extraneous matter or foreign objects, include any physical matter not normally found in food, which may cause illness (including psychological trauma) or injury to an individual. The most common physical hazards encountered in spices are metal parts, wooden pieces, glass splinters, and stones, which may enter during primary processing and further handling processes. Regulatory action may be initiated when agencies find adulterated foods or foods that are manufactured, packed or held under conditions whereby they may have become contaminated and may be injurious to health.

Item-Wise Export Of Spices From India
Item-Wise Export Of Spices From India

Reasons for poor safety and quality assurance:

  • Weak regulatory systems relating to the import, production, and sale of pesticides.
  • Limited farmer knowledge of alternative pest management approaches and appropriate use of pesticides
  • Limited application of HACCP principles by packers/exporters (especially SME’s)
  • Improper storage and packaging facilities
  • Limited/ lack of systems for traceability (especially from smallholders)
  • Poor waste management
  • Unhygienic handling and transport
  • Use of banned food additives (colours /chemicals) as preservatives
  • Cross-contamination due to an unhygienic processing environment

To meet these challenges, India needs to strengthen its regulatory framework. This process would include upgrading testing facilities to meet international as well as importing-country requirements; upgrading human capabilities or empowering personnel in the areas of testing, risk analysis, and development and auditing of HACCP plans; developing GMP/GHP/HACCP modules for implementation at both domestic and export levels; and establishing databases on requirements of importing countries. India is either funding these upgrades itself or seeking assistance under programs funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The initiatives include:

Need to strengthen regulatory framework

Upgrading of laboratories

Laboratories are being strengthened in terms of equipment, manpower, and systems. A significant amount of investment has been made over the past decade in laboratory facilities and equipment, with individual labs being extended beyond their initial focus on physical and chemical parameters to include testing for pesticide residues, aflatoxin, and, in a few cases, heavy metals. To meet the requirements for testing, specifically for testing for chloramphenicol, nitrofurans, and other antibiotics, the Export Inspection Council (EIC) labs and five other government labs now have the capability to test at 0.02 parts per billion.

Training and technical assistance

Training efforts in India focus on developing and upgrading skills of industry and government personnel. A Human Resource and Quality Development Centre have been established under the EIC. It offers certification personnel a chance to keep abreast of the latest developments and take training programs for implementing and monitoring food-product certification. Similar training and awareness programs are being organized for industry on various issues, including HACCP, testing, milk quality, and rice quality.

Establishing a database on importing-country requirements

Information on regulations and specifications regarding methods of sampling, inspection, and testing in various countries is often unavailable or available only in the language of the importing country. This lack of clarity about specific requirements can sometimes lead to rejection at the point of import. Now India is building a database of requirements of major import partners that can be accessed by exporters. Technical assistance in this area has been sought from the EIC.

Some importing countries are imposing unjust measures that conflict with Codex and impede trade. Some of these measures include applying standards more stringent than Codex without carrying out a risk analysis, destroying nonconforming consignments, imposing new requirements without notification or information, and applying test methods that may be different from internationally specified ones. To work out Solutions such issues, India is entering into dialogue with importing governments.

Role of the public and private sector in enhancing food safety

Addressing food safety issues in India will require the adoption of more appropriate legislation and their enforcement. Joint efforts by the government and the private sector will be needed in a number of areas. These include better risk management, the promotion, and adoption of good agricultural, manufacturing and hygiene practices, greater collective action and some targeted public investments.

Responsibilities for these functions need to be shared between the private and public sectors. While there are many critical regulatory, research and management functions that are normally carried out by governments, the private sector also has an important role in the actual compliance with food safety requirements.

India's Spice Export Value
India’s Spice Export Value Rs. Crore 2016-2017


For a long period, India has been among the world leaders in the production, trade, and application of post-harvest and processing technologies to spices. India also has, by far, the largest domestic market for spices in the world. India’s spices are sold throughout the world. Thus, it is an industry with an exceptionally broad and historical perspective. To continue to be, or to become, competitive in both of these areas, India must make effective use of the installed technological and testing capacities put in place over the past decade or two. Furthermore, there will need to be an intensification of efforts to promote “Good Agricultural Practices” among spice growers.

The lack of harmonization of international standards for spices is a cause for some uncertainty within the trade and added costs for spice exporters since they must use different technologies and employ different types of tests to satisfy different markets. The harmonization of international standards would reduce this uncertainty and enable more uniform procedures. Adoption of new and hygienic production and post-production methods coupled with infrastructure development for testing methods and sampling procedures will enhance the return of spice growers, processors, and exporters through the increased domestic and international market.

The challenges of ensuring food safety in the domestic market and in its food exports remain large. India has made some progress in the last decade to strengthen food safety measures at home and in meeting food safety and SPS standards abroad. The challenge for the future will be to adopt a more strategic, rather than crisis management approach. This will be essential to ensuring the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of these efforts.


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