In all of human history, adulteration and fraud followed closely in the footsteps of new products, and herbs, spices and drugs are no exception. Even 2000 years ago, Pliny the Elder described adulteration. In ancient Athens, inspectors monitored the authenticity of wine. Scientific methods were first applied by Archimedes, and started to be utilized more by the end of the 17th century. In the 1850s, heightened public awareness and the demand for higher product quality raised anti-adulteration movements and increased enforcement.
Spices and herbs are sourced at a rate of 300,000 tons into the EU from places around the world, and fraudulent activity can happen in any steps along the supply chain. The European Commission’s control plan investigated nearly 2,000 samples of herbs and spices commonly targeted for fraud, such as oregano, cumin, turmeric, paprika, pepper and saffron, and found oregano to be the most manipulated, usually by the addition of olive leaves. Overall, the rate of 17% fraudulent products was down compared to other studies.
Who wants shredded olive leaves on their pizza instead of oregano? Herbs and spices keep being a target for food fraud, a European Commission study that analyzed nearly 1,900 samples revealed. The study showed that about 20% of herbs and spices are manipulated, with oregano leading the top of the list, followed by spices that include pepper, cumin, curcuma, saffron and paprika. Europe is a leading importer of herbs and spices at 300,000 tons a year. The entire supply chain from country of origin, processing, packaging, importing to distribution, is potentially vulnerable to fraud. In most cases, undeclared plant material was added, and sometimes toxic dyes were found—and these are detrimental to human health.
A Northern Ireland-based analytical lab added white pepper to its portfolio of food authenticity tests based on spectroscopy with chemometric analysis. White pepper, the ripe berries of the piper nigrum plant, is undergoing an additional production step, fetches a higher price than black pepper and therefore is a target for fraudsters. Often, bulking substances like skins, flour, husks and spent materials are used, but in some cases of pepper fraud, the substances used were hazardous to human health.
Spices have been an ongoing hot target for fraudulent activity, whether it is the addition of inedible substances like dyes, or bulking agents, such as brick powder, other plant material, sawdust and many other, potentially hazardous substances. A relatively new technology, next-generation sequencing (NGS), enables to analyze the DNA of complex samples such as spices and herbs. The DNA findings are compared to a database and allow to detect many thousands of species in one test. Currently, working groups are developing standardized methods for such authenticity tests.
It is fair to say that 2020 was a challenging year with wide-ranging effects, including significant effects on our ongoing efforts to ensure food integrity and prevent fraud in the food system. COVID-19 caused major supply chain disruptions for foods and many other consumer products. It also highlighted challenges in effective tracking and standardization of food fraud-related data.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable food fraud occurrences in 2020:
Organic Products. The Spanish Guardia Civil investigated an organized crime group that sold pistachios with pesticide residues that were fraudulently labeled as organic, reportedly yielding €6 million in profit. USDA reported fraudulent organic certificates for products including winter squash, leafy greens, collagen peptides powder, blackberries, and avocados. Counterfeit wines with fraudulent DOG, PGI, and organic labels were discovered in Italy.
Herbs and Spices. Quite a few reports came out of India and Pakistan about adulteration and fraud in the local spice market. One of the most egregious involved the use of animal dung along with various other substances in the production of fraudulent chili powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, and garam masala spice mix. Greece issued a notification for a turmeric recall following the detection of lead, chromium, and mercury in a sample of the product. Belgium recalled chili pepper for containing an “unauthorized coloring agent.” Reports of research conducted at Queen’s University Belfast also indicated that 25% of sage samples purchased from e-commerce or independent channels in the U.K. were adulterated with other leafy material.
Dairy Products. India and Pakistan have also reported quite a few incidents of fraud in local markets involving dairy products. These have included reports of counterfeit ghee and fraudulent ghee manufactured with animal fats as well as milk adulterated with a variety of fraudulent substances. The Czech Republic issued a report about Edam cheese that contained vegetable fat instead of milk fat.
Meat and Fish. This European report concluded that the vulnerability to fraud in animal production networks was particularly high during to the COVID-19 pandemic due to the “most widely spread effects in terms of production, logistics, and demand.” Thousands of pounds of seafood were destroyed in Cambodia because they contained a gelatin-like substance. Fraudulent USDA marks of inspection were discovered on chicken imported to the United States from China. Soy protein far exceeding levels that could be expected from cross contamination were identified in sausage in the Czech Republic. In Colombia, a supplier of food for school children was accused of selling donkey and horse meat as beef. Decades of fraud involving halal beef was recently reported in in Malaysia.
Alcoholic Beverages. To date, our system has captured more than 30 separate incidents of fraud involving wine or other alcoholic beverages in 2020. Many of these involved illegally produced products, some of which contained toxic substances such as methanol. There were also multiple reports of counterfeit wines and whisky. Wines were also adulterated with sugar, flavors, colors and water.
We have currently captured about 70% of the number of incidents for 2020 as compared to 2019, although there are always lags in reporting and data capture, so we expect that number to rise over the coming weeks. These numbers do not appear to bear out predictions about the higher risk of food fraud cited by many groups resulting from the effects of COVID-19. This is likely due in part to reduced surveillance and reporting due to the effects of COVID lockdowns on regulatory and auditing programs. However, as noted in a recent article, we should take seriously food fraud reports that occur against this “backdrop of reduced regulatory oversight during the COVID-19 pandemic.” If public reports are just the tip of the iceburg, 2020 numbers that are close to those reported in 2019 may indeed indicate that the iceburg is actually larger.
Unfortunately, tracking food fraud reports and inferring trends is a difficult task. There is currently no globally standardized system for collection and reporting information on food fraud occurrences, or even standardized definitions for food fraud and the ways in which it happens. Media reports of fraud are challenging to verify and there can be many media reports related to one individual incident, which complicates tracking (especially by automated systems). Reports from official sources are not without their own challenges. Government agencies have varying priorities for their surveillance and testing programs, and these priorities have a direct effect on the data that is reported. Therefore, increases in reports for a particular commodity do not necessarily indicate a trend, they may just reflect an ongoing regulatory priority a particular country. Official sources are also not standardized with respect to how they report food safety or fraud incidents. Two RASFF notifications in 2008 following the discovery of melamine adulteration in milk illustrate this point (see Figure 1). In the first notification for a “milk drink” product, the hazard category was listed as “adulteration/fraud.” However, in the second notification for “chocolate and strawberry flavor body pen sets,” the hazard category was listed as “industrial contaminants,” even though the analytical result was higher.1
What does all of this mean for ensuring food authenticity into 2021? We need to continue efforts to align terminology, track food fraud risk data, and ensure transparency and evaluation of the data that is reported. Alignment and standardization of food fraud reporting would go a long way to improving our understanding of how much food fraud occurs and where. Renewed efforts by global authorities to strengthen food authenticity protections are important. Finally, consumers and industry must continue to demand and ensure authenticity in our food supply. While most food fraud may not have immediate health consequences for consumers, reduced controls can lead to systemic problems and have devastating effects.
Everstine, K., Popping, B., and Gendel, S.M. (2021). Food fraud mitigation: strategic approaches and tools. In R.S. Hellberg, K. Everstine, & S. Sklare (Eds.) Food Fraud – A Global Threat With Public Health and Economic Consequences (pp. 23-44). Elsevier. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-817242-1.00015-4
Herbs remain a target for fraudsters. The latest investigation of sage samples by the Institute of Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast used a combination of spectroscopic and chemometric methods to check whether sage contained 100% of the actual herb. One quarter of samples from the UK included unapproved (fortunately, no hazardous) bulk material, such as tree leaves, some in significant concentrations of more than half of the product.
“Sage News”. (November 9, 2020). The Hippocratic Post.
The European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) Portal shows a notification about the use of olive leaves in oregano in Turkey. Addition of cheaper bulking agents to herbs and spices is a common way of achieving a higher profit margin for pricier herbs. The olive leaves were classified as an unauthorized novel ingredient; however, they are known to be used for the adulteration of oregano. An investigation of commercial oregano samples showed that one quarter of samples were adulterated with other plant leaves, and two of the samples didn’t even contain any oregano.
The following infographic is a snapshot of the hazard trends in herbs and spices from Q3 2019. The information has been pulled from the HorizonScan quarterly report, which summarizes recent global adulteration trends using data gathered from more than 120 reliable sources worldwide. Over the next several weeks, Food Safety Tech will provide readers with hazard trends from various food categories included in this report.
People like to ask “what is the next melamine?” Of course, this is an impossible question to answer. However, methods of perpetrating food fraud are rarely novel. Even melamine had a history of use in feed products for nitrogen enhancement.
Examples of recurring food fraud in recent history include:
Herbs and spices: High-value commodities, especially when sold in dried, flaked or ground form, have been targets of fraud for ages. Although recent work looking specifically at oregano shed new light on the problems in that particular herb, the group as a whole is long known to be prone to substitution with other plant material and addition of dyes to improve color. Lead chromate and lead oxide have both been used in spices to add color. A recent study in the United States conducted testing on spices recovered from the homes of children diagnosed with lead poisoning and determined that some lead poisoning cases can be attributed to high levels of lead in spices consumed by children.
Milk: Milk has been repeatedly prone to the addition of protein-mimicking compounds such as urea, the addition of other fats such as vegetable oil, and the addition of preservatives such as formaldehyde. Melamine addition to milk discovered in 2008 was not entirely novel. The addition of melamine to artificially enhance the apparent protein content of a product was documented in scientific papers in the 1980s.1
Liquor: Alcoholic beverages are also a high-value target, especially if they are a popular brand. Counterfeit alcohol is a common form of food fraud cited in the Food Fraud Database. Unfortunately, the use of methanol in unregulated liquor production repeatedly results in illnesses and deaths in consumers.
What forms of food fraud will be common in the coming years? Millennials reportedly place value on sustainability, convenience, high protein, and production practices such as organic and “local.” Verifying claims around production practices through long food supply chains is notoriously challenging. Increasing interest by consumers in these types of label claims may increase this type of fraud in the future.
Bisaz, R., and A. Kummer. “Determination of 2, 4, 6-triamino-1, 3, 5-triazine (melamine) in potatoe proteins.” Mitt. Gebiete Lebensm. Hyg 74 (1983): 74-79.
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