A survey on herb and spice authenticity in Europe has found potential adulteration, illegal dyes and allergens.
The work was overseen by DG SANTE, the European Commission’s health and safety body, and carried out in 21 EU member states, Switzerland and Norway.
Technical support came from the Joint Research Centre, an agency that provides scientific advice to the EU Commission, which performed nearly 10,000 analyses on 1,885 samples, using a range of analytical techniques to assess the authenticity of six herbs and spices. These were cumin, curcuma (turmeric), oregano, paprika/chili, pepper and saffron.
The JRC found the rate of suspicious samples was 17 percent, or 329 of the samples analyzed, which is less than what has been reported in the literature or by national food control agencies.
The European Commission called on operators to create a plan to remedy a situation that is detrimental to consumers’ interests and health, but also to the herbs and spices industry and its fair operators. The agency also invited national authorities to increase official controls in the sector to deter bad practices and sanction fraudsters.
Dyes and heavy metals
In 25 of 1,340 analyzed spice samples, non-authorized dyes were detected. In 316 curcuma samples, Sudan I was present in one sample and Tartrazine in two. For paprika and chili, 10 non-permitted dyes including Sudan I, Allura Red, Bixin, Azorubin and Sunset Yellow were found. Out of 141 saffron samples, 12 contained either Sudan I, Sunset Yellow, Azorubine, Acid Yellow 3, Tartrazine, Carminic acid, Allura Red or Auramine O.
In one curcuma sample substantial amounts of lead and chromium was found. Lead chromate has been reported as an adulterant to enhance the bright yellow color of curcuma. In two cumin, 45 oregano, and four pepper samples, copper compounds above the maximum residue limit set by EU regulation were identified.
The percentage of crushed or ground samples at risk of adulteration were 17 percent for pepper, 14 percent for cumin, 11 percent for curcuma and saffron and 6 percent for paprika/chili. Oregano was the most vulnerable with 48 percent of 295 samples contaminated, mostly by olive leaves. Authenticity and purity was assessed against relevant ISO standards.
The EU produces about 100,000 tons of herbs and spices per year, and imports annually three times this amount from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Fraud may happen at any stage of the process from production, the shipping and processing until the product reaches the market. Samples came from different places including retailers, processors, importers and online sellers.
Vulnerabilities include the length of the supply chain, fraud history, seasonality and availability of the crop, weather, natural disasters, cultural and geo-political events, economic situation, enforcement of food law, prevalence of corruption, and advances in technology to mask fraud. Among the most common issues are ingredients, additives, dyes or any other constituent not approved for use.
Fraud or natural contamination?
Some cumin samples contained coriander, mustard, linseed or pumpkin seed above the maximum level of extraneous substances. In nine samples DNA of mustard, which is a food allergen, was detected. In 24 samples of curcuma, DNA of non-declared plant material, mostly paprika/chili and starch containing species such as maize, rice, and other cereals were detected in amounts greater than 2 percent, which is the maximum allowed amount of extraneous material. Many oregano samples had low levels of thyme, peppermint and sage.
In paprika/chili, maize, carrot, tomato and sunflower seed was found in excess of 1 percent. Nine pepper samples contained mustard seed, which is an allergen. Some had starch containing fillers such as rice, buckwheat and other cereals. Samples also tested positive for non-declared other spices such as paprika, garlic, cumin, fennel and coriander above 2.5 percent, the maximum for extraneous matter in the ISO specification.
Testing focused on detecting substitution of the named herb or spice by another botanical material, the addition of fillers such as starch, flour, dust or chalk and enhancement of color by a non-authorized additive like a synthetic dye. It did not cover description of origin, whether they were conventional or organic or had undergone treatments like ionizing radiation.
DNA-based methods were partly used but the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast said such techniques have shortcomings when applied to herbs and spices. The choice of method is important to distinguish between fraudulent adulteration and low level naturally occurring cross-contamination.
Other issues on the radar of EU countries include use of water retention agents and mis-declared glazing of frozen fish fillets; fraud in fruit juices such as addition of water and sugar, presence of non-declared fruit juices, infringement of labeling rules on the use of flavorings, colorings and preservatives; adulteration of honey with sugars and the illegal sale of plant protection products through e-commerce.
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