MDH and Everest: Why are Indian spices under global scrutiny and what’s going to happen next?

India’s government spice board has launched factory inspections of two top companies, MDH and Everest, in the wake of foreign bans following accusations some products were tainted with pesticides (AFP/Getty)
India’s government spice board has launched factory inspections of two top companies, MDH and Everest, in the wake of foreign bans following accusations some products were tainted with pesticides (AFP/Getty)

Two of the most popular Indian spice brands – MDH and Everest – are facing global scrutiny after Hong Kong, Singapore and Nepal suspended sales of their spice blends last month.

After routine screening detected the presence of a cancer-causing pesticide – ethylene oxide – in some of the companies’ products, countries including the UK, Australia, the Maldives and the US are ramping up their testing of Indian spice products.

The main blends allegedly found to be contaminated are MDH’s Madras Curry Powder, Sambhar Mixed Masala Powder and Mixed Masala Curry Powder, and Everest’s Fish Curry Masala.

When did the India spice controversy start?

On 5 April, Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety suspended the sale of the four spice blends, saying they were contaminated with ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical used as a food stabiliser.

Singapore soon followed suit and ordered a recall of the Everest mix, saying it was unfit for human consumption and a cancer risk with long exposure.

Prior to the pesticide contamination, according to one Indian Express report, nearly 31 per cent of products from the Indian spice maker MDH had been rejected by US customs authorities over the past six months.

The outlet revealed that the refusal rate of MDH shipments has doubled from 15 per cent to 31 per cent since October last year due to salmonella contamination.

Since the start of the current US federal fiscal year in October 2023, 11 shipments – amounting to nearly one-third of all shipments from MDH containing products categorised as “spices, flavours, and salts” – have been refused entry.

Which countries are affected?

Britain’s food watchdog announced earlier this month that it had implemented additional control measures on all spice imports from India – making it the first country to increase scrutiny of all Indian spices following the allegations against the two brands.

James Cooper, deputy director of food policy at the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), told Reuters that it has “applied extra control measures for pesticide residues in spices from India which includes ethylene oxide”.

“The use of ethylene oxide is not allowed here and maximum residue levels are in place for herbs and spices,” he added.

New Zealand’s food safety regulator also announced that it is investigating possible contamination in spice products from MDH and Everest.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told Reuters that it is “aware of the reports and is gathering additional information about the situation”.

Similar scrutiny has been announced by food regulatory bodies in Bangladesh, Australia and the Maldives.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also said earlier this month that it was aware of the concerns around MDH and Everest’s products and “continues to monitor the situation”.

“Based on current information, we have no evidence to suggest that the issues raised affect products currently in the Canadian market,” it said.

How much is the Indian spice trade worth?

India exports over 200 spices and value-added products to around 180 countries, generating $4bn (£3.1bn) in revenue a year, according to the Spices Board of India, a government agency that oversees the sector.

Domestically, the market is valued at $10bn, making India the world’s largest consumer of spices.

MDH and Everest export their products to most of the world, including the US, Europe, southeast Asia, the Middle East and Australia.

In response to the global scrutiny, the Spices Board has mandated product testing for exports and is reportedly collaborating with exporters to determine the source of contamination.

According to The Hindu newspaper, international scrutiny has prompted calls for India’s Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI) to conduct stringent quality checks on spices and curry powders sold in domestic markets as well.

Why are these two brands iconic in India?

Founded in 1919 in New Delhi, MDH, or “Mahashian Di Hatti”, is a family business known for its iconic image of an elderly man in a regal red turban on spice packets. Its founder, Dharampal Gulati, rose from humble beginnings, dropping out of school to help sell spices in Sialkot (now in Pakistan).

Despite challenges after partition in 1947, Gulati restarted the business in Delhi.

MDH now offers over 65 products and has a vast network of more than 400,000 retail dealers globally, with revenue reaching $260m in 2022-2023, according to FirstPost.

Everest Food Products was established in 1967 with three products and began from a small spice shop in India. Today, it offers 52 products and operates in about 80 countries worldwide.

With around 20 million households using its products daily and 3.7 billion packs sold annually, Everest has become a household name in India. The company reported net sales of $365m for the fiscal year 2022-23.

What is ethylene oxide and why is it dangerous?

According to the US government’s National Cancer Institute, ethylene oxide is a flammable colourless gas with a sweet odour. It is used primarily to produce other chemicals, including antifreeze. In smaller amounts, ethylene oxide is used as a pesticide and a sterilising agent. The ability of ethylene oxide to damage DNA makes it an effective sterilising agent but also accounts for its cancer-causing activity.

The website says that “lymphoma and leukaemia are the cancers most frequently reported to be associated with occupational exposure to ethylene oxide. Stomach and breast cancers may also be associated with ethylene oxide exposure.”

How have the two Indian spice brands responded?

In a statement, MDH has claimed that its products are safe for consumption. “We reassure our buyers and consumers that we do not use ethylene oxide at any stage of storing, processing, or packing our spices,” an MDH spokesperson was quoted as saying by Livemint last month after Hong Kong suspended the blends.

Everest, which boasts of having Hindi film legend Amitabh Bachchan as its brand ambassador, has also said its spices are safe. According to The Times of India, an Everest spokesperson said: “Only one of 60 Everest products was held for examination. We assure our customers that our products are safe and of high quality, so there is no cause for concern.”

The Independent has reached out to MDH and Everest for comment.

Will the wider screenings have reputational impact on India?

“India has been a spice exporter for centuries. But this image has been declining in the last few years, with the government’s inadequate attention,” the BBC quoted Narasimha Reddy Donthi, an independent researcher and environmental justice activist, as saying. “We do not yet know at which stage the contamination is happening. Ethylene oxide is not used by farmers. It is most probably a post-harvest, post-processing residue.

“It is not only the negative attention. Repeated cases of excessive residues can have a long-term effect. In the past, mango exports to the US suffered for years due to pesticide residues.”

According to a report in The Hindu, the international scrutiny of these Indian spice brands has also stirred a demand for the FSSAI to ensure stringent quality checks on spices and curry powders sold in domestic markets.

“The incident isn’t isolated. Controversies have engulfed protein drinks, fruit juices, health drinks and imported Nestlé baby products, drawing attention to regulatory lapses and heightening health concerns, Simi TB, who works with CUTS International, a global advocacy group for consumer welfare, was quoted as saying.

“Consumers are increasingly questioning the safety and quality of trusted brands, and wonder what the food regulator in India is doing.”

What happens next?

The Indian government says it has started taking action against Everest and MDH after the contamination allegations. Inspections have reportedly been conducted and corrective measures have been recommended.

“We have also conducted three consultations with the industry,” an anonymous senior official was quoted as saying by Livemint in a 20 May-dated report. The official said the industry “is taking a serious approach to ensuring full compliance with the maximum permissible limit. These consultations have been crucial in aligning industry practices with international standards.”

A report on 21 May in the Financial Express said that initial testing by Indian officials found no evidence of ethylene oxide in MDH spices but that “in the case of Everest, some of the samples (out of 12) were non-compliant”.

“We have told them to take corrective actions and we are working with them to ensure that they are compliant,” the unnamed official said.

The Spices Board of India has also recently ordered that ethylene oxide testing be made mandatory for all spices destined for Hong Kong and Singapore. This move follows a similar mandate in 2022 when the government required ethylene oxide testing for spices exported to Europe.

The Independent has reached out to the Spices Board of India for a comment.

The Delhi-based think tank Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI) has warned that recent quality concerns pose a significant threat to India’s spice exports. The agency warns that increasing regulatory actions across multiple countries could potentially endanger up to half of India’s spice exports.

Additional reporting by agencies