Tackling the Indian pepper market

Related tags Codex alimentarius commission Food Codex alimentarius

As the UN's Codex Alimentarius Commission announces an agreement on
international guidelines for food trade and production, farmers and
commodity traders in southern Indian state of Kerala know that good
standards mean better business, writes the Food and Agriculture

As the UN's Codex Alimentarius Commission announces an agreement​ on international guidelines for food trade and production, farmers and commodity traders in southern Indian state of Kerala know that good standards mean better business, writes the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

For centuries, the engine driving economic development in Kerala and its main port city, Cochin, has been the spice trade - in particular trade in black pepper. A new focus on internationally recognised food safety norms means that Kerala black pepper is reaching more consumers around the globe than ever before.

Backyard production, international markets

Pepper plants do not require intensive care. Once planted at the base of shade-giving trees, they need little attention until after the monsoons, when it's time to harvest.

This fact, combined with laws limiting agricultural production on large farms to four principal crops, means that pepper is commonly grown in Kerala as a secondary crop by farmers - and by most other area residents as well. It offers a worry-free way for households to supplement their incomes.

Farmers have no trouble selling whatever pepper they can grow for a good price to the traders of Cochin. The traders, in turn, sell on the international market, where demand for spices continues to grow.

Despite increasing competition from other spice-producing countries, it is estimated that 45 per cent of all spices sold around the world come from India, with much of the black pepper exported to Asia, Europe and the United States grown by small producers in Kerala.

Questions of safety

Growth in international trade of agricultural products like pepper has been accompanied by higher international standards of food safety. As a consequence, processing to eliminate micro-organisms from the spice is a critical component of India's dynamic pepper export industry.

Traditional processing methods, such as steam sterilisation and fumigation, are still used around the world and are accepted by spice-importing countries. Yet some of the chemicals used in fumigation are considered damaging to human health and the environment.

Alongside these older methods, the use of new technologies, such as irradiation, is becoming increasingly common. There is a real need for effective ways to safely sanitise agricultural produce.

Worldwide, about 25 per cent of all food production is lost to insects, bacteria and rodents after harvesting, according to FAO estimates. Irradiation can help cut these losses while reducing dependence on chemical pesticides.

When integrated within an established system for the safe handling and distribution of food, the technology has been successfully used to combat threats from foodborne diseases, control pest infestation of grains and extend the shelf lives of products. Today, health and safety authorities in over 40 countries have approved irradiation of over 60 different foods, including grains, chicken, beef, fruits, vegetables - and spices.

Following the Codex Alimentarius Commission's adoption in 1983 of a worldwide standard covering irradiated foods, the use of irradiation in tackling food safety problems began to receive more attention internationally.

The standard was based on a 1980 study by a group of experts convened by Codex, who concluded that irradiation of any food commodity up to an overall average dose of 10 kilogray (kGy) "presents no toxicological hazard."

During its 26th session, which closed last week, the Commission adopted a revised version of the Codex General Standard for Irradiated Foods. The revised standard maintains a maximum absorbed dose of 10 kGy, but allows limited exceptions to this limit when necessary to achieve a legitimate technological purpose, and provided that it does not compromise consumer safety or wholesomeness of food.

This decision was taken in part on the basis of a WHO evaluation and several joint FAO-WHO-International Atomic Energy Agency expert group conclusions that irradiated foods are safe and nutritionally adequate.

For spice-producing countries like India, irradiation offers an attractive alternative to traditional sanitation methods. Heat treatment can cause significant loss of flavour and aroma, fumigation with sterilising gases is also problematic, as these chemicals are banned in a number of countries.

Irradiation of spices on a commercial scale is practised in over 20 countries. In 2000, some 80 000 metric tonnes of spice were processed worldwide using irradiation.

"We would as a matter of policy like to encourage the installation of facilities that will provide the kind of cleanliness that the importing countries require,"​ said C.J. Jose, chairman of the Spices Board of India, the branch of India's Ministry of Commerce responsible for overseeing the national spice industry.

According to Dr N. Ramamoorthy, chief executive of India's Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology, "out of the various methods, such as chemical fumigation and other things, irradiation provides a very cost-effective and a very clean method, with no residues - nothing is left."

"Irradiation is a process which is economical, which will take care of all major contaminants and microbial load,"​ said Mr Jose. But, he added, "the major problem confronting irradiation is the psychological resistance in many countries, either because of consumer resistance or because of legislative reasons, which are not really founded on strong health and safety concerns."

Food safety debates surrounding the use of irradiation lie at the heart of the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, adds the FAO article.

By bringing its pepper processing standards in line with the international norms outlined in Codex, India is not only addressing core issues of health and safety - it is also opening doors to its products around the world.

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