EUROPE – Herbs and spices are some of the most vulnerable to fraud value chains in Europe, a new report by the European Commission has revealed.  

The report is the child of an EU-wide survey into herbs and spices authenticity, focusing on pepper, cumin, turmeric, saffron, and paprika.  

In the survey, the commission detected food fraud in herbs and spices across the bloc and is calling for immediate action to correct the anomaly.  

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.

Spice adulteration; an ever-present problem  

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

In 2014, the European Parliament adopted a report into food fraud which identified 10 products most at 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 while in 2019, French authorities reported irregularities in 26.4% of the 138 samples of spices that it 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). 

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-authorized dyes were detected in 2% of the analyzed spice samples, one sample contained a high level of lead chromate.  

 Chris Elliot, professor of food safety at Queen’s University in Belfast notes the reason for the adulteration is because spices are very high value commodities, each ton worth many tens of thousands of pounds.  

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

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

Solution lies with food processors 

To prevent future fraud, “companies should know their supply chains and they must be subject to strict audits/inspections,” stressed Queen’s University’s Elliot.  

At the union level, the control of fraudulent practices in the food chain is primarily the responsibility of Member States, noted the Commission. 

It however added that it 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. 

Reacting to the report, US-based ingredients supplier McCormick & Company has called on manufacturers in the herb and spice industry to check their businesses for fraudulent practices. 

It has called for the establishment of an anonymous industry-wide whistleblowing programme, available to all those involved in the end-to-end supply chain to help combat the issue. 

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