• European Ban on Ethylene Oxide
  • Recalls of Food Products
  • Ingredients on High Alert

European Ban on Ethylene Oxide

Ethylene oxide is largely used to sterilize materials and instruments used in surgery and for medical devices, but it is not allowed for food use in Europe. Its use as biocide was banned in Europe due to the risks from its toxicity. It is not even approved as an active substance in plant protection products in the Union. However, since September 2020, the European RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) system has notified the entry of multiple foods contaminated with ethylene oxide in European countries.

Currently, the United States permits the use of ethylene oxide (EtO) for the reduction of microbial contaminants on various commodities. The U.S. enforces a limit of 7 parts per million (ppm) for EtO residues applicable to the spice and herb group (except basil), licorice (roots), sesame, peppermint, spearmint, and dried vegetables. Ethylene oxide is regulated in food by Reg. (EC) 396/2005, which defines it as the sum of ethylene oxide and 2-chloro-ethanol (a related product of its) expressed in ethylene oxide.

Recalls of Food Products Due to the Presence of Ethylene Oxide

Alerts started with sesame seeds in September 2020. On 9 October 2020, a food and feed crisis coordinators meeting took place regarding the detection of ethylene residues in sesame seeds from India. Further meetings were held in November 2020 and February 2021 where several Member States reported enforcement in line with the agreed approach, i.e. withdrawal or recall of non-compliant food products. Several Member States reported extension of monitoring (and findings of non-compliance with MRLs for ethylene oxide) to products from origins other than India, and to products other than sesame seeds, as well as organic products.

Ingredients on High Alert

Last week DGCCRF (French Ministry of Economy and Finances), in its press release dated June 15, informed about the list of over 7,000 products that have high levels of this pesticide considered carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic for reproduction and whose use is prohibited in Europe. These products are at risk due to two stabilizers in their composition:

  •   The first is Locust bean gum (E410) with ethylene oxide contents above the regulatory maximum limit,
  •   The second is guar gum (E412) with high risk of contamination.

As these ingredients are largely used in food products, other products than ice creams, containing guar gum or carob flour, have been withdrawn from the shelves.

Since January 1, ethylene oxide was responsible for more than 1,000 food safety alerts according to a review of alert notices from the 58 countries monitored by Safety HUD.  While EU countries issued the majority of recalls or alerts involving the chemical, more than half of the food safety notices indicated the country of origin was “unknown”. This year, the top five food categories identified in food safety alerts due to ethylene oxide were:

  1. cereals and bakery product
  2. nuts and seeds
  3. frozen desserts,
  4. milk and dairy products
  5. prepared dishes and snack

How We Can Support the Market

Ask for Safety HUD, Mérieux NutriSciences’ tool for worldwide food safety alerts monitoring, to see the complete list of alerts and notified products.

As a reliable partner for food manufacturers, Mérieux NutriSciences provides the ISO17025 accredited analysis of ethylene oxide and 2-chloro-ethanol in sesame seeds and other products (bakery products and cereals, rice, nuts, pulses, seeds-based products, fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, coffee, dehydrated vegetables, guar gum, locust bean gum).


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