Spices from India ‘may be contaminated with pesticides’

The report, carried out by the FSA and Queen’s University, shows that ‘authenticity testing’ of herbs and spices is not carried out in UK ports because there is no legal requirement to do so.

Public analyst labs surveyed in the report also said they receive “very few samples” of herbs and spices because testing authenticity is “not a priority” for local authorities.

Spices not checked at borders

The FSA told The Telegraph that imported food that is not of animal origin, whether from the EU or outside the EU, will not be checked at the border unless it is labeled as ‘high risk’.

Christopher Elliott, a food safety professor who led the government’s response to the horsemeat scandal, said the fact that spices are not subject to authenticity checks at the border is a “flanking loophole.”

He told The Telegraph: “There is so much evidence that spices contain a number of dangerous pathogens and can also be subject to massive fraud. So I think it’s a glaring loophole in the border model.”

Not only do adulterated spices fail to deliver the expected taste and aroma to consumers, but they can also pose health and allergen risks due to the presence of contaminants and additives.

“There are loads of different problems with spices, especially when they are adulterated, because you just don’t know what they are being adulterated with,” Professor Elliott added.

“It could be chalk dust, it could be brick dust – anything that criminals can get their hands on.”

This year, Prof Elliott’s food testing company, Bia Analytical, launched a revolutionary portable authenticity testing tool that will enable those involved in the spice production chain to detect fraud before their products hit supermarket shelves.

An investigation by the BBC in March using the tool found that spice fraud is still a problem in Britain, with seven of around 61 spices and herbs tested confirmed as inauthentic.

One sample of black pepper, oregano, turmeric, garlic powder and ginger was confirmed to be adulterated, and two of paprika.

Research shows that 17% of herbs are adulterated

Meanwhile, an EU study published in 2021 – based on 1,900 samples of herbs and spices from 23 countries – found that almost one in five (17 percent) showed signs of adulteration.

“Every time we try to detect fraud in spices, we always find it,” Professor Elliott said.

“It will be different spices at different times depending on supply chain pressures, prices, etc.”

There is “huge amounts of money to be made” from adulterating spices, he added, leading to the global herb and spice industry becoming increasingly targeted by organized crime gangs.

Saffron, which is worth more per ounce than gold (more than £5,000 per kilo (£2,200 per pound), is often targeted by criminals.

In 2021, Spanish police arrested 17 people and seized half a ton of saffron after breaking up a gang that allegedly imported the spice from Iran, staged it and sold it as the protected and highly priced native Spanish variety.

Professor Elliott said a “complex and opaque” spice supply chain was also to blame for the increase in spice fraud.

He added: “And another factor is that they are actually very easy to fake. If they are ground powders, it is generally very difficult to determine whether someone has added a filler to them or not.

‘We always remain vigilant’

Ms Smith added: “We remain ever vigilant to the risks to food safety and the risks of crime in the herbs and spices sector and the wider food system.

“Products, such as herbs and spices, that are checked must have official paperwork, enter through a designated border control post and undergo official sampling.

“If products are not checked, they may be sampled as part of port surveillance. When these goods are sampled at Port Health Authorities (PHAs) and errors occur, border notifications are generated.

“Businesses have a responsibility to sell safe and authentic food and we work closely with the industry and other agencies to support them. We receive data on over 50,000 authenticity and traceability checks carried out by major food companies every year.

“According to the FSA’s recently published data, 97 percent of the foods we tested for authenticity were what they said they were.

“However, even small amounts of food fraud are unacceptable, so together with local authorities we are working hard to identify misconduct and hold offenders accountable to protect legitimate businesses and consumers.”

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