Fraud and adulteration in the European spice and herb sector

Spices: Image by Freepik

In Europe, tackling fraud and adulteration in the spice and herb sector is a high priority. Adulteration is the illegal mixing of ingredients. A recent survey shows consumer risks. Solutions are not simple, but better supply chain relations and access to correct information and tools can help spice producers and consumers.

Europe's fight against spices and herbs fraud

Protecting consumers from misleading and potentially unsafe products has been a high priority on the European agenda for many years. The spice and herb sector is one of the most vulnerable to fraudulent practices. Combatting these practices effectively is of the utmost importance to the European industry and authorities.

Driven by economic gains, counterfeiters attempt to pass off inferior products as genuine. Examples are partially substituting oregano with olive leaves to make it less costly or adding Sudan red dyes to chilli or paprika powder to make the colour more attractive.

Many European laboratories have increased testing due to growing authenticity and purity issues. They aim to reveal fraud in spices and herbs, following the example of Eurofins Genomics. Standard testing methods include:

  • DNA analysis,
  • isotopic techniques,
  • mass spectrometry,
  • spectroscopy,
  • chemometrics, or
  • a combination of detection methods.

European Union survey reveals vulnerabilities

Amid the impact of COVID-19 on supply chains, the European industry's and authorities' attention shifted to the authenticity of spices and herbs. At the end of 2021, the European Commission published an EU-wide survey revealing product authenticity and purity risks. National food control authorities and the Commission joined forces to target this sector for the first time.

The survey focused on cumin (Cuminum cyminum), curcuma (Curcuma longa), oregano (Origanum vulgare), paprika/chilli (Capsicum annuum), pepper (Piper nigrum) and saffron (Crocus sativus). Nearly 10,000 analyses were carried out on 1,885 samples. Oregano was the most vulnerable product, with 48% of the samples at risk of contamination. The risk for other products ranged between 6% for paprika/chilli and 17% for pepper. The types of adulteration were diverse but not new: colour enhancement with non-authorised dyes, substituting spices and herbs with other botanical materials or fillers, and so on.

With the survey results and evidence, the European Commission’s call for action was clear: operators must take immediate measures to protect consumers' interests and health and the spice and herb sector.

What can spices and herbs exporters do?

The spices and herbs supply chains are long and complex. Fraud can occur at any step. We need proper controls and mitigation measures to detect and prevent blind spots. Exporters also carry this responsibility. But how do you lower your risks?

Creating trust-based and transparent relations with buyers is vital. This includes clear and fast communication, fulfilment of promises and effective response to non-compliance. Sending representative samples is also extremely important to prove that you are a reliable supplier. In our study on doing business in the European spice and herb market, you will find more tips to help build long-term relations with buyers.

Existing guidelines and publications will help you address the blind spots in your supply chain. For example, the Guidance on Authenticity of Herbs and Spices is a collection of good practices to target adulteration issues. It is a publication from BRCGS, the United Kingdom Food and Drink Federation and the Seasoning and Spice Association.

Digital technologies also offer you tools. Our study on digitalisation in spices and herbs discusses some of these tools. They are good starting points to get your supply chain under control. Blockchain-powered traceability platforms such as FOOD SIGN can help you map the chain's steps and actors. This will help you create transparency and assure trust. More sophisticated Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software can help you better manage your processes in one system. For example, ERP ensures the separation of products according to shelf life, allergen risk and origin. It also sets mandatory quality and authenticity checks for each type of spice or herb.

Read more

For more information, see the EU survey about spice and herb authenticity.

Also, see our study on European buyer requirements in the spice and herb sector. For specific product studies, visit our spices and herbs market information page.

Gustavo Ferro wrote this news article for CBI.

Stay informed

In December 2022, we will discuss spice and herb fraud and adulteration during a webinar.

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