Investigators in Spain have uncovered a saffron fraud operation that used ingredients from China.

The Guardia Civil found a group was selling modified gardenia extract from China as saffron across Spain. The harvest price of saffron is 10 times more than gardenia extract.

Operation Garden saw 11 people arrested and three companies investigated for crimes against public health and fraud. The probe was carried out in Malaga, Barcelona, Alicante, Granada and Almeria.

The method of the gang involved reducing the concentration of the molecule that differentiates saffron from gardenia. This meant they were able to pass detection techniques used in past years.

Saffron and gardenia difference
The operation involved the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and Europol plus the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN).

Fraud led to an estimated profit of €3 million ($3.3 million) for the main company investigated, said authorities. This is based on product marketing data from China since 2013.

More than 2,000-kilograms of allegedly adulterated saffron valued at €750,000 ($818,000) was seized and withdrawn from the market.

Gardenia has a similar color to saffron but can be intensively harvested, while saffron must be done manually, as it is delicate. This leads to the harvest price of saffron being 10 times higher. Gardenia is not considered a food in the European Union so importers didn’t have to meet any safety standards.

Gardenia extracts were imported from a Chinese factory that specialized in producing dyes. The people investigated in Spain changed the labels and technical and customs documentation to pass it off as saffron.

Once the product was in Spain, it was stored and handled according to customer requirements, and introduced to the market through large distribution chains, being consumed by people who bought it thinking it was saffron.

Olive oil fraud suspected
In other news, Spanish officials have issued a warning related to the processing, bottling and distribution of virgin and extra virgin olive oil.

Label from one of the products listed in the warning

The Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN) said it was informed about the marketing of 10 products of different brands and sizes that are considered unsafe because of where they come and due to the lack of reliable traceability.

Official sampling of olive oil revealed the presence of vegetable oils. This was done as part of an operation to combat fraud. A possible risk to the health of consumers was also detected because of unavailable production reports and the lack of traceability.

Wafa virgin olive oil, Maakoul olive oil, Riad Al Andalus virgin olive oil, Maysae, virgin olive oil in 5 liter containers with no branding, La Noria extra virgin olive oil, Zannouti 31 31 extra virgin olive oil, Virgen de la Salud virgin and extra virgin oil and Rahouyi extra virgin olive oil were listed as being affected by AESAN. See pictures of all affected product labels here.

Distribution of the products has been mostly in the region of Murcia but also Catalonia, the Basque Country and Valencia.

People who have the affected oils were advised not to consume them and return them to the point of sale.

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