Sampling study finds widespread herb, spice fraud in EU

Just under a fifth of all herbs and spices that are sold in the EU may be fraudulent, according to a new study by the Joint Research Centre (JRC).

The finding is the result of a European Commission-led initiative that invited EU member states to carry out sampling studies of herbs and spices in their domestic markets, to try to establish the prevalence of fraudulent practices like adulteration with other ingredients.

The effort resulted in almost 1,900 samples being submitted to the JRC for analysis to assess their purity, 17 per cent of which were classed as suspect.

The investigation focused on cumin, turmeric (curcuma), oregano, paprika/chilli, black pepper and saffron, which are thought to be particularly targeted by fraudsters, and looked for non-authorised dyes, inorganic fillers like dirt, sand or clay, and non-declared botanicals.

Top of the list of herbs and spices for vulnerability to fraud was oregano, with almost half (48 per cent) of the collected samples deemed to have been adulterated with other ingredients, mostly with olive leaves.

It is worrying finding, particularly as some research has suggested that adulterated oregano may have higher levels of harmful substances like pesticides.

Next up was pepper, with 17 per cent of samples suspected to be adulterated, followed by cumin (14 per cent), turmeric (11 per cent) and saffron (11 per cent). The lowest suspect rate (6 per cent) was found for paprika/chilli.

The report notes that Europe is one of the world's leading importing regions for herbs and spices, importing approximately 300,000 tonnes, mostly spices from East Asia, every year.

Most of the spices are produced in countries where certain post-harvest processes such as drying and cleaning may happen before being shipped to the importing country where they are further cleaned and sanitised before being packaged and distributed either to other food businesses or for retail consumption, according to the JRC.

At each stage, fraudulent manipulations may happen and the more often the material is transferred from one operator to the next, the fraud opportunity increases.

Looking at the type of fraud being carried out, the study found that most was related to non-declared botanicals, but unauthorised dyes were detected in 2 per cent of analysed spice samples, and one contained high levels of lead chromate, a pigment generally used in paints or dyes that can be toxic.

"Food inspection authorities and food business operators can profit from this knowledge as it will allow to better target control activities and strengthen preventive measures to combat food fraud," concludes the report.

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