The murky world of herb and spice fraud
Herbs and spices are things to be enjoyed. They add colour, flavour and aroma to so many of the dishes we like to eat. There are also numerous reports regarding the health benefits of these ingredients: claims that they are anti-diabetese, increase brain function and boost our immune systems to name just a few. But there is a dark, murky side to the world of herbs and spices. This is the world of cheats and criminals who set out to deceive us into thinking what we are buying is authentic and safe.
There are three questions to be tackled in our webinar. Firstly, why cheat in the first place? The simple answer is greed. The global herb and spice industry is valued at approximately US$4 billion and continues to grow. Where there is money there will be criminals trying to take their cut. If we take vanilla and saffron as examples, the former is worth more by weight than silver, while the latter is more valuable than gold!
Secondly, how is the fraud perpetrated? The answer to this is much more complex. In many cases, such as with paprika and chilli, a spice’s quality – and thus its value – is based on the intensity of its colour. Cheats therefore devise ways of adding industrial (and potentially toxic) dyes to these to spices. In some cases, a spice’s aromatic oil is extracted to make other products. The left-over substance, or ‘spent material’ in fraudulent cases is blended back in to high- quality spices, markedly increasing their volume. In the cases of herbs, often the cheating involves blending the authentic ingredient with worthless green leaves. The long and complex nature of the herb and spice supply chain mean ample opportunities for fraudulent activity.
The final big question is what can be done about the fraud that is going on? Fraudsters can be extremely devious – they know the supply chain system and how testing methods work and strive to find ways to avoid being detected. Science is fighting back, however, with ‘food fingerprinting’ at the forefront of technology in this field. In the webinar, we’ll be looking at some of the latest innovations in food fingerprinting and explaining how these have been used to catch cheats worldwide.
Chris Elliott, Professor of Food Safety and Founder of the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University
Chris is Professor of Food Safety and Founder of the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University, Belfast. A member of the New Food Advisory Board, he will be leading our Moving from Food Fraud to Food Integrity Conference on 28 February, 2019.