A cautionary signal : Milind Kokje, Editor

27 November 2013 | Column | By Milind Kokje

Development is surely not spicy for spice lover Indians in general and spice exporters in particular. The same spices they are exporting may now give them a bland taste.

The US Federal Drug Administration (USFDA) has issued orders putting nearly 200 Indian spice export firms on its ‘red list’ alleging that the spices exported by them during 2009-13 contained salmonella, a bacterium that causes food poisoning. US is concerned as every year, 1.2 million people fall ill from salmonella. After a study in food microbiology of products sent to US during 2007-09, USFDA identified 37 countries from whom contaminated spices were received and India is second in the list after Mexico.

Known as a land of spices, India boasts of a long history of spice trade with ancient civilisations. Even today, Indian spices are most sought after globally, in addition to having the largest domestic market.

In the current scenario of global economic slowdown and the delicate situation of the rupee, this news has come as a shock as it may bring severe setback to spices export. One of the commodities that hoped to give some positive relief on the export front was spices since, despite the decline in total exports, it recorded a strong growth of 22% in volume during 2012-13. In all 6.99 lakh tonnes of spices and spice products, valued at Rs 11,171 crore ($2,040 million), were exported. The rise in value was 14%. However, the first quarter of the current financial year showed effects of the slowdown as the export dropped by 9% compared to the corresponding period of previous year. While the slowdown has apparently started showing its effect on spice exports, the ‘USFDA red list’ may now add to the problem, causing a serious concern for exporters and processors/producers in turn as US is a major importer.
India has strong points in its favour. The whole study is controversial for varied reasons. The study was conducted on the spices exported during 2007-09. Obiviously, there have been many changes that led to improvement in examining the products leaving our shores, ensuring standards and quality set by US. Spices Board claims that the spices meant for exports are tested and found 98.5% salmonella free. Secondly, the samples were collected from retail outlets. The imported spices are checked at the entry point in US are destroyed if found contaminated. If that is the process how the contaminated spices reached the market bypassing USFDA and how far exporters are responsible for detection of contaminated spices at retail points?

Indian authorities should swung into action, engage services of Indian experts as well as experts in Indian diaspora as they are well verse with US standards, to nip in the bud an attempt likely to affect exports. Today it is spices, tomorrow it may be something else. The Ayurvedic products are already facing problems, of course partly, due to their own negligence of bringing in standardisation. The strategy to beat such attempts is to improve our standards and quality on one hand and continence exporting countries about them. It is not a question of simple export figures coming down. It is establishing identity of our products, particularly when we are attempting to make strides in varied new area like nutraceuticals, Ayurceuticals and allied areas.

Consider the development as a cautionary signal to act formidably in not only meeting US standards but also convincing them our strong case for any product. Spice is just only one of them in a possibly long battle.

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