Herbs and spices authenticity scrutinised in Europe: ‘These supply chains are amongst the most vulnerable to fraud’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

The European Commission is called for an immediate action plan, having detected food fraud in herbs and spices across the bloc. GettyImages/fcafotodigital
The European Commission is called for an immediate action plan, having detected food fraud in herbs and spices across the bloc. GettyImages/fcafotodigital

Related tags Food fraud Adulteration

The European Commission has published results of the first ever EU-wide survey into herbs and spices authenticity, focusing on pepper, cumin, turmeric, saffron, and paprika.

The European Commission is calling for an immediate action plan, having detected food fraud in herbs and spices across the bloc.

Of the six herbs and spices analysed, 17% of pepper was deemed at risk of adulteration, 14% for cumin, 11% for turmeric, 11% for saffron, and 6% for paprika/chilli.

Oregano was identified as the most vulnerable in the category, with 48% of samples at risk of contamination - in most cases with olive leaves.

EU-wide collaboration

The adulteration of herbs and spices has been on the European Commission’s radar for some time.

In 2014, the European Parliament’s adopted report into food fraud, The food crisis, fraud in the food chain and control thereof​, identified 10 products most as risk from fraud.

An inventory put together by researchers from Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands placed herbs and spices at the top of the list.

In 2019, French authorities investigated anomalies in the domestic spice market, revealing irregularities in 26.4% of the 138 samples tested.

The same year, the Commission decided to take a closer look across the bloc, setting up a coordinated control plan inviting Member States to sample certain herbs and spices and send them for analysis to its Joint Research Centre (JRC).

Participating countries include Member States Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portgual, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. Norway and Switzerland also opted to participate in the survey.

Testing methods

Nearly 10,000 analyses were carried out by the JRC on 1885 samples. Testing activities focused on detecting partial substitutions of herbs and spices with another botanical material or fillers, such as starch, flour, dust, or chalk.

Colour enhancement achieved by adulterating a product with a non-authorised additive, such as a synthetic dye, was also targeted by the JRC.

Amongst the key findings was that the majority of suspicious samples contained non-declared plant material, non-authorised dyes were detected in 2% of the analysed spice samples, one sample contained a high level of lead chromate.

“No specific trend regarding the rate of potential fraudulent manipulations along the supply chain (country of origin/importers/wholesalers/processors/packagers) could be observed,” ​noted the Commission.

“However, the number of samples obtained at certain stages (domestic production, local markets, border control, and internet) was too low to enable statistically meaningful comparisons).”

Spotlight on herbs and spices

The herbs and spices supply chain is amongst the most vulnerable to fraud.

“This is because they are very high value commodities, each ton worth many tens of thousands of pounds,” ​Chris Elliot, professor of food safety at Queen’s University in Belfast, told FoodNavigator.

Indeed, the global market value is estimated to be worth €4bn annually. And demand, due to their popularity in ready meals and trending ethnic cuisines, is on the rise.

“They have very complex supply chains and are subject to a lot of processing, where the adulteration often occurs,” ​he added.

The herbs and spices supply chain can pass through many countries. Frequently farmed at a subsistence scale in non-EU countries, herbs and spices frequently pass through many intermediaries in the supply chain, offering opportunities for fraudulent practices.

Other vulnerabilities that can affect the chance of adulteration in herbs and spices include fraud history, seasonality and availability of the crop, weather events, natural disasters, cultural and geo-political events, economic situation, enforcement of food law, prevalence of corruption, and advances in technology to mask fraud.

Taking action

So what can be done to eliminate adulteration in this category?

“Companies should know their supply chains and they must be subject to strict audits/inspections,” ​stressed Queen's University's Elliot.

“They must also be subjected to testing to verify that no adulteration has occurred.”

The European Commission also noted the ‘primary responsibility’ for ensuring compliance with food law lies with the food business operators.

“Operators have to provide accurate, clear and easy to understand food information for the consumer and consumers shall not be misled as to the characteristics of the food, as to its nature, identity and composition.”

Having identified herbs and spices adulteration in the coordinated control plan, the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety has called on operators for an immediate action plan to remedy the situation.

The control of fraudulent practices in the food chain, however, is primarily the responsibility of Member States, noted the Commission, which is helping to strengthen the legal framework for combatting food fraud.

The Official Controls Regulation now enables and requires Member States to target their controls on those areas of the food chain they judge to be most at risk of fraud, the Commission explained.

The Regulation also requires that the financial penalties imposed by Member States reflect the economic advantage gained by the operator or a percentage of their turnover.

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