Food Fraud in Spices and Herbs
Herbs and spices are the backbone of any great food (Picture 1). They not only give dishes their distinct flavours, but they may also confer health benefits when consumed in the right combination and quantities. However, whether it’s the right flavour to complement a dish or the right benefits to keep one’s diet healthy, consumers need to know they’re getting what they pay for. Spices are susceptible to fraud due to their high value, limited supply, and the complexity of their production and sourcing. Spice fraud happens when an expensive spice (such as saffron) is bulked up with non-spice plant material (such as plant stems). Another type of fraud is using dyes to give spices a specific colour, particularly when the colour strongly impacts the perception of quality. Spices such as chilli powder, turmeric, and cumin have been found to contain lead-based dyes and other industrial dyes that can cause health problems such as cancer (3).
According to a recent EU study, this is not always, or even often, the case (EUR30877EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2021) (4)(5). The study conducted in 21 EU member states, as well as Switzerland and Norway, discovered that nearly one in every five herbs and spices was adulterated or altered in some unknown way. The most commonly adulterated herb was oregano, with almost half of the collected samples (48%) containing other ingredients, most commonly olive leaves. Other herbs and spices found to be adulterated were pepper (17% of samples), cumin (14%), curcuma (turmeric 11%), paprika (6%), and saffron (11%). These herbs and spices were altered or adulterated in a variety of ways. Some contained other ingredients that were added to the product but were not disclosed, such as oregano. Worryingly, some herbs and spices were discovered to contain additives currently not approved for use in foods. The study examined 1,885 samples of herbs and spices and discovered that more than half of them contained “some amount of undeclared plant material.” Unauthorized food dyes were found in about one in every fifty samples. Several samples were also found to have higher-than-allowed copper levels, including two cumin samples, four pepper samples, and 45 oregano samples. One sample also contained potentially carcinogenic levels of the chemical lead chromate.
In 2018, a study by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention found that up to 27% of spices sold in the United States were adulterated with fillers or other substances.
“There was no specific trend in the rate of potential fraudulent manipulations along the supply chain (country of origin/importers/wholesalers/processors/packagers)”, the authors wrote. “However, the number of samples obtained at certain stages (domestic production, local markets, border control, and internet) was insufficient to allow statistically significant comparisons.” As consumer interest in global flavours grows, so does demand for the herbs and spices that provide those flavours. With an increasing popularity of the food service sector for their use in ready-made meals, interest in new tastes and ethnic cuisine, health-related claims, and so on,” the authors wrote, “the global demand for herbs and spices—and the market for value-added spices and herbs, such as crushed, milled, or mixed –is on the rise”, the authors wrote. However, the scientists were quick to point out that with rising demand (and currently skyrocketing import and export costs), the possibility of adulteration grows.
What can spices and herbs exporters do?
The supply chains for spices and herbs are long and complex. Fraud can occur at any point in the process. To detect and prevent blind spots, we need proper controls and mitigation measures. This is also the responsibility of exporters. But how do you mitigate your risks?
- It is critical to establish trusting and transparent relationships with buyers. This includes clear and fast communication, fulfillment of promises, and effective response to non-compliance. It is also critical to send representative samples to demonstrate that you are a trustworthy supplier.
- Existing guidelines and publications will assist you in addressing the gaps in your supply chain. The Guidance on the Authenticity of Herbs and Spices, for example, is a collection of best practices for addressing adulteration issues. BRCGS, the United Kingdom Food and Drink Federation, and the Seasoning and Spice Association collaborated on the publication.
Digital technologies can also provide you with tools. They are excellent starting points for gaining control of your supply chain. Blockchain-powered traceability platforms can assist you in mapping the steps and actors in the chain. This will assist you in establishing transparency and trust. More advanced Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software can assist you in better managing your processes in a single system. ERP, for example, ensures product separation based on shelf life, allergen risk, and origin. It also establishes quality and authenticity standards for each type of spice or herb (5).
However, EMA is more than just a financial concern. Food fraud can cause serious health problems, even death, depending on what is added, substituted, or left out. Lead poisoning from adulterated spices is one example, as are allergic reactions to a hidden, substituted ingredient that contains even just one food allergen (1).
- Brooks, C. at al. 2021 A review of food fraud and food authenticity across the food supply chain, with an examination of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit on food industry. Food Control, Vol. 130, 108171.