Spanish police bust counterfeit saffron network

An operation by Spain's Guardia Civil has dismantled a criminal network that fraudulently sold powdered gardenia extract, claiming it was the high-price spice saffron.

Eleven arrests have been made in the crackdown, known as Operation Garden, with members of the ring accused of crimes against public health as well as fraud and membership of a criminal organisation.

The operation focused on three businesses operating in Malaga, Barcelona, Alicante, Granada and Almeria with links to a factory producing the powdered extract in China. More than 2,000 kg of the material was seized, valued at more than €750,000 ($822,000)

In the sophisticated scam, the gang had worked out a way to make the substitution almost undetectable. While gardenia has a similar colour and has often been used to counterfeit saffron, it can usually be spotted because it contains a marker compound that is absent from the genuine spice.

The fraudsters found a way of reducing the concentration of the marker to levels that were practically undetectable, reducing the risk of detection, and allowing them to distribute tonnes of the much cheaper ingredient at inflated prices – using fake importation documents – across Spain.

In the EU, gardenia is not considered to be a foodstuff, so selling it as a spice contravenes health and food safety regulations.

Saffron should be harvested from the stigma of crocus sativus Linnaeus, and 85,000 are needed to produce a single kilogram. The finest saffron sells for upwards of £6 a gram, or £6,000 ($7,640) a kilo, but gardenia costs a fraction of that.

The fraudsters are thought to have made at least €3m from the sale of the fake saffron, according to a Guardia Civil statement, which estimates they made an 800% markup on the extract.

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