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FSSAI issues draft notification on use of Ethylene in ripening of fruit
Monday, 23 May, 2016, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Ashwani Maindola, New Delhi
The apex food regulator Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has issued a draft notification on the use of Ethylene for the purpose of fruit ripening. According to sources, the apex body sees this as the best available option for the purpose, as this would lessen carbide powder linked food safety risk. Calcium carbide is used in India on mass level for fruit ripening.

The draft says that in the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulations, 2011, in Regulation 2.3, in sub-regulation 2.3.5, the following provision shall be inserted namely, “Provided that fruits may be artificially ripened by use of Ethylene gas at a concentration upto 100 ppm (0.01%) depending upon the crop, variety and maturity.”

The authority says that it would consider objections and suggestions on the draft till June 11.

Meanwhile, experts feel that for purpose of fruit ripening, Ethylene is certainly the best option available. Ashwin Bhadri, CEO, Equinox Labs, while speaking on the safety of Ethylene gas used for the purpose of fruit ripening, states, “Fruits are indispensable part of the staple diet in all corners of the world. These food products play an important role in providing the necessary micronutrients which our daily fill of palate is incapable of providing. The entire ripening process of the fruits occurs through scheduled supply and production of ripening hormones, a large part of which is played by Ethylene gas. This hormone, also known as the secondary metabolite of plants, is under the control of genes, activated only by external and internal conditions. 0.1-1 ppm Ethylene is naturally effective for fruit ripening.”

Expressing his view on the notification, Dr Pankaj Jaiminy, AVP (food, health & cosmetics) - testing, certification and inspection, TÜV SÜD South Asia, states, “This notification has brought clarification on use of artificial ripening process. Earlier, under Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulations, 2011, in Regulation 2.3, in sub-regulation 2.3.5, it is not allowed to use carbide or calcium carbide for artificial ripening of fruit. However, with the new draft notification, it is clarified that Ethylene up to 100 ppm is permissible depending on crop, variety and maturity. This will help fruit processing industry to regulate the process and validate the usage of Ethylene gas.”

But what is Ethylene?
Ethylene (C2H4, also known as Ethene) is a gaseous organic compound that is the simplest of the Alkene chemical structures (alkenes contain a carbon-carbon double bond). Commercially, Ethylene is the most produced organic compound in the world and is used in many industrial applications.  Ethylene is also a gaseous plant hormone, which assists in the process of ripening.

Usually, the amount of gassing is restricted to around 1,500 - 2,000 PPM for 24 to 48 hours. However, the carbon dioxide levels should be monitored in ripening rooms since at high temperature (20°C), ripening process leads to more production of CO2.

Bhadri further explains that being a natural plant hormone, Ethylene is a safe ripening agent in a controlled environment.

Talking about some of the hazards of artificial ripening of fruits using harmful chemicals, he states, “When calcium carbide comes in contact with moisture, it produces acetylene gas, which is quite similar in reaction to the natural ripening agent Ethylene. However, the rising market needs of fruits and the greed to supply more in less time has resulted in heightened usage of calcium carbide (CaC2). This chemical is widely used and is gaining fast popularity for artificial ripening of fruits. It contains traces of Arsenic and Phosphorous hydrides, which are deemed cancerous for human beings. Known as potential carcinogen, it is capable of altering human genes, and these modifications are proved in various tests internationally. Banned in various countries, this chemical is freely used in India, Pakistan and few other countries, in amount immeasurable. The hydrides found, cause many short-term and long-term complications. Ethylene becomes toxic if amount used is >33%. However, traces of calcium carbide bio-accumulates to cause disorders. Food safety authorities in India have raided many markets, distributors and farms for eradicating the use of the powder.”

How safe is Ethylene?
Treatment of fruits through Ethylene gas is one of the most appropriate, safe, fast and easy methods for ripening fruits and is also accepted worldwide. With rising health concerns owing to illegal methods used for ripening of fruits, many countries have now definite protocols for using natural ripening agents such as ethylene gas under specific dose limits. Countries like USA and the UK allow using ethylene for post-harvest ripening of some specific fruits. Furthermore, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements considers, “Ethylene gas for ripening fruits’ in its list of Substances for Organic Production and Processing.

Speaking on safety terms, Jaiminy explains, “Ethylene is a natural hormone that induces ripening in fruits. Hence, fruits ripened through Ethylene maintain natural colour, taste, aroma and quality. Maximum permissible limit of using Ethylene gas is 100 ppm. However, Ethylene must be used under controlled temperature and humidity levels. Unlike Ethylene gas, calcium carbide has no control limits defined by any country and it is illegal in many countries. It deteriorates the quality of fruits and leaves deposits of industrial contaminants on the external peel posing many health risks for consumers.”
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