India is known from time immemorial as the golden land of spices, cherished all over the world. With rapid advances made in safety and quality assurance methodologies during the last two decades, world is not willing to accept any thing and every thing exported from the country under brand India. On the contrary any thing that originates from India is viewed with grave suspicion regarding its quality and if it is food, about its safety. Still, being the foremost producer of many spices leeway was always given to the Indian exporters to mend them selves and supply products conforming to internationally accepted quality and safety requirements. How far such considerations are going to help the country if there is no genuine desire to implement steps that will ensure safety of exported products on the part of growers and their agents who predominate the export trade?.
India was supposed to have produced about 3.2 million tons of spices, constituting almost 80% of world production and out this more than half a million ton was exported fetching the country foreign exchange to the tune of US$ 1.5 billion. Out of the 109 spices covered under the ISO, 52 spices are considered important for India to export because of their significant production in the country. Indian Spices Board of GOI is vested with the task of coordinating the export of these valuable crops and value added products derived from them. Continuous increase in export of spices, in spite of many infrastructural constraints speaks well about the performance of the Spice Board till recently and full credit to it for enhancing the portion of value added products from spices in the total spice export beyond 50%.
Europe is a major destination for Indian spices and being very sensitive to dangers of food poisoning EU food safety authorities have been continuously raising the bar to achieve zero tolerance for contaminated foods, from where ever they are. One can understand the concerns of the Union, especially after the recent E.coli pandemic killing several people, traced to imported Fenugreek from Egypt. It was in 2010 EU introduced the Rapid Alert System for Feed and Food (RASFF) for identifying contaminated imports as defined by their standards and currently 50% of all shipments entering the EU region are subjected to rigorous inspection for quality and safety. Knowing fully well that such strict safety protocols are enforced, it should have been the responsibility of Spice Board to radically modify the export regime and it is unfortunate that the short comings, some of them serious, were uncovered by the technical team from EU that visited the country recently. Below is reproduced verbatim some of the findings of this team which wanted the country to take adequate steps to address the short comings immediately.
"The supervision of control authorities of spice growers is not robust enough. There is a failure to ensure producers are implementing Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) or Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). Advisory services on these practices do exist but not all farmers, particularly larger-scale ones, are covered by these and therefore they might not be fully aware of GAP procedures, said the FVO report. Instead, Indian officials have focussed on implementing aflatoxin controlsprior to export. While a string of procedures are in place, the inspectors said many of the measures do not meet EU standards. Indian spices are one of the products subject to heightened scrutiny under EC Regulation 669/2009 as a result of the higher than average RASFF notifications on the presence of aflatoxins in the foods. Currently, some 50 per cent of shipments undergo physical inspection at EU borders. Following the introduction of the measure in 2010, the number of RASFF notifications jumped by 600 per cent to 98, compared to 12 in the previous 12 months. While legislation has been introduced in India to regulate its 3,500 spice exporters - of which 220 ship into the EU - there are some gaps. There are no clear food hygiene rules laid down for food companies, including spice processors and it is not obligatory to implement Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). "The level of HACCP implementation in companies processing spices for export to the EU is very low," said the report. Spice processors or traders exporting their produce are not subject to any food hygiene control - and therefore there is no official body to ensure they comply with EU requirements, it added".
One of the deficiencies of the Spice Board pointed out from time to time is its ability to get top notch scientists to be a part of its technical team which could inspire confidence among the buying countries. It is time this inadequacy is seriously addressed in the interest of protecting the nation's exports. Aflatoxin is a contaminant in many spices at the field level post-harvest handling level which cannot be avoided unless good agricultural practices GAP) are adopted by the growers, many of whom are small land holders. This is where help is needed by the growers in the form of technical training and investment for upgrading their operations. Earlier this is done better it will be for the spice industry in the country.