Ethylene oxide is a colorless gas that is considered carcinogenic and mutagenic. Since 1981, food in Germany has not been allowed to be treated with it. The pesticide has also been banned as a plant protection product in the EU since 1991. According to the Federal Office for Risk Assessment, foods containing an additive treated with ethylene oxide are generally undesirable.
Toxic pesticide found in instant noodles
The chemical veterinary investigation office in Stuttgart (CVUAS) examined the components of instant noodles from Asia for ethylene oxide. Result: The poison was detectable in eleven of 25 random samples examined (44 percent), in seven (28 percent) it was even classified as harmful. At the end of 2020, the CVUAS had already analyzed sesame products. Half of the samples were contaminated.
Additives such as carob and guar gum are also affected
Food thickeners are often made from locust bean (E410) or guar gum (E412). Here, too, there were numerous recalls due to ethylene oxide in the summer. When it comes to food imports – for example via the seaports in Hamburg and Bremerhaven – so far only sesame has been subject to increased controls. For other foods, the necessary EU laws are still lacking. However, these are in preparation, so that herbs and spices can also be checked in the near future.
Abroad pesticide fumigation against germs and bacteria
But how does the poison get into the food? Videos are circulating on the Internet in which spices and herbs are gassed with ethylene oxide in specially made containers. The main aim is to destroy germs and bacteria before the raw material is shipped. However, this usually only becomes a problem when importing into the EU: Much stricter rules apply here than in the USA, for example. The limit for raw sesame there is 7 mg/kg, around 140 times higher than in the EU at 0.05 mg/kg.
No automatic product recall if only ingredients are incriminated
Despite its danger, the EU has approved different tolerance limits for ethylene oxide in food raw materials – so-called maximum residue levels. If these are exceeded, such foods may not be processed according to Article 19 of EU Regulation 396/2005. But: In Germany, the processing ban does not automatically result in a marketing ban if contaminated ingredients have been used. The food control authorities of the federal states must then specifically prove for each individual product whether it is dangerous for the end consumer.
Other EU countries are stricter here. They follow a recommendation from the EU crisis management team for food and feed safety and take food off the market if the processed ingredients contained ethylene oxide but this is no longer detectable in the end product. The result: products that are still on supermarket shelves in Germany have already been recalled in France or Belgium, for example.
The food association speaks out against this practice – also to counteract the waste of food. He is in favor of only calling back if there is ethylene oxide in the end product.
Significantly fewer pesticides in organic products
The CVUAS advises on regional and organic products. As a rule, 100 to 200 times fewer pesticides are found in organic goods than in conventional products.