Foods that were supposed to be withdrawn from the market years ago because of their content of ethylene oxide (ETO), a carcinogenic disinfectant, are in fact still being marketed without the public being informed. Why and especially how? A crisis could well ensue, especially as pressure from operators on the European Commission could force it to turn a blind eye. We tell you all about the ETO crisis.
What is the ETO crisis?
Ethylene Oxide, allowed or not?
Several years ago, ethylene oxide, sometimes referred to as ETO, a pesticide, was authorised in Europe. Since 2002, it has been banned by the public authorities in charge of its analysis because of its carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic (CMR) risks, regardless of the quantity used.
But this year, in Belgium, the Food and Feed Safety Alerts (RASFF) alerted the French health authorities to a too high content of ETO in certain batches of imported sesame seeds. Checks were then carried out and the Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) showed that other products, such as psyllium, were likely to be contaminated.
Although France has been enforcing the law requiring the recall of some 6,000 products illegally treated with ethylene oxide since September 2020, this is not the case in all countries. Many European countries have continued and continue to market these so-called dangerous products, without withdrawing them from the market despite the ban, and without warning potential consumers, which constitutes a serious breach of Articles 11 and 14 of the European regulation on health safety EU 178/2002.
What is the EC's reaction?
Since 29 June 2021, the subject has been brought up again and is being debated in Brussels. It was expected that the Commission would harmonise the reactions in the European Union, but Foodwatch discovered via several documents that nothing is less certain. In particular, the issue risks creating an unprecedented European crisis, as Member States and the European Commission may decide to relax the rules and continue to allow non-compliant products to be placed on the market.
In particular, they would be less careful about products that were not recalled, preferring to let stocks run out, for which the operators in charge at the time had not managed to measure the contamination, as it was below the detectable threshold, i.e. 0.02mg/kg. This is where Foodwatch, the European consumer protection organisation, intervened and disagreed with the pretext and therefore called on the European Commission to do so.
In addition, two of the substances concerned by the contamination, carob flour and guar gum, are used as thickeners in infant formula for the first and second age groups.
The dangers of ethylene oxide
Ethylene oxide is a carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic disinfectant that is banned in Europe.
The reason why the subject is so hotly debated is unfortunately that many people in the scientific community, but also in the food industry, do not agree on the effects of ETO. Some manufacturers are downplaying the health risks, while health safety professionals are on high alert.
It would appear that some toxicologists consider that ETO is virtually no longer present in foodstuffs, as it evaporates at 10.4° (except in the form of its metabolite, 2-chloroethanol) and that, furthermore, it is not dangerous to health in trace amounts. However, these claims date from 2007 and 2012. New studies have had to be carried out since these obsolete opinions.
A report by ANSES published on the Foodwatch website has also established the following opinion: on page 5, it is stated that ethylene oxide presents health hazards without a dose threshold, so even with a very low level of exposure, ETO increases the risk of cancer.
Why was the contaminated food still allowed?
Even the inspectors of the Répression des Fraudes do not have the answer to this question. Like many actors in this debate, they do not understand that the decision was taken to condemn and recall toxic substances only to tolerate them in some products from other countries.
According to investigations, these non-compliances date back to at least 2019, but may have occurred much earlier, as it is difficult to date the first frauds precisely. This results in a much higher than expected exposure to ETO, but no study on this subject, which is both curious and anomalous. In any case, those who benefit the most are of course certain lobbies and the food industry.
Of course, the various operators pass the buck. Who is responsible? Manufacturers, importers, distributors, all evade the question, as they did during the mad cow, horse meat and fipronil crises. Under these conditions, it is difficult to apply sanctions.
The impact on the nutraceutical industry
Not only has the confidence and credibility of operators been damaged, despite the lack of media coverage, but the financial impact is catastrophic. The cost of withdrawals, recalls and destruction of non-compliant products amounted to hundreds of millions of euros.
List of foods contaminated with ETO
Products contaminated with ethylene oxide are numerous and varied, ranging from ice cream or coffee to spices such as pepper or ginger.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of exposed materials, published by the Synadiet website in September 2021:
Orange, lemon, vegetable melatonin, ashwaganda, curry, nutmeg, coffee, piperine, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, calcium carbonate, cardamom, ginseng, psyllium, magnesium carbonate, locust bean gum, guar gum, spirulina, celery, xanthan gum, tea, hibiscus, chlorella, red yeast rice, flaxseed, turmeric, bamboo, maté...
You can find the regularly updated official list on the French government website.
What about products contaminated with ethylene oxide?
The European Commission has finally harmonised the management of the ETO crisis between all EU Member States. In July 2021, it has been decided that all foodstuffs with a proven presence of ethylene oxide will be withdrawn from the market. Every batch delivered since 13 July will be analysed by an accredited laboratory. Foodwatch demands an express and transparent communication from the competent authorities. LEPIVITS is doing its utmost to control each batch of raw materials in order to guarantee the safety of consumers.
This case in particular will be more sensitive with regard to the products incorporated in infant formula. Manufacturers will be asked to communicate in full transparency the details of their suppliers of carob flour and guar gum.