Food fraud usually does not make people sick, but we know that it can. Fraud in spices, and particularly lead adulteration of spices, appears to be getting more attention lately. Herbs/spices is one of the top five commodity groups prone to fraud, according to the data in our Food Fraud Database. Looking at the past 10 years of data for herbs/spices, chili powder, turmeric, and saffron have the highest number of fraud records and chili powder, turmeric, and paprika have the highest number of distinct adulterants associated with them (see Figure 1).*
Fraud in spices usually involves “bulking up” the spice with plant materials or other substances or the addition of unapproved coloring agents. A wide range of pigments have been detected in spices, from food-grade colors to industrial pigments, including lead-based pigments. Lead oxide was added to paprika in Hungary in the mid-1990s to improve the color, causing lead poisoning in many consumers. Lead chromate is another lead-based pigment that has been used to add color to spices. In 2017, ground cumin was recalled in the United States due to “lead contamination,” which was determined by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to be lead chromate.
However, there is also an issue with lead contamination of agricultural products due to environmental contamination and uptake from the soil. Therefore, when recalls are posted for spices due to “elevated lead levels,” it may not immediately be apparent if the lead was due to environmental factors or intentionally added for color.
Laboratory methods for detecting the form of lead present in food are challenging. Typical tests look to detect lead, but do not necessarily identify the form in which it occurs. Testing for lead chromate, specifically, may be inferred through a test for both lead and chromium, and recent studies have looked at the development of more specific methods. There is not currently an FDA-established guideline for lead levels in spices although, the maximum allowable level for lead in candy is 0.1 ppm (0.00001%). New York State recalls spices with lead over 1 ppm and a Class 1 recall is conducted with lead over 25 ppm.
Two recent public health studies have evaluated lead poisoning cases and have linked some of those cases to consumption of contaminated spices. One study, published earlier this year, analyzed spice samples taken during lead poisoning investigations in New York over a 10-year period. The investigators tested nearly 1,500 samples of spices (purchased both domestically and abroad) and found that 31% of them had lead levels higher than 2 ppm. This study found maximum lead levels in curry of 21,000 ppm, in turmeric of 2,700 ppm, and in cumin of 1,200 ppm.
Another study conducted in North Carolina looked at environmental investigations in homes and testing of various products related to 61 cases of elevated lead levels in children over an eight-year period. The investigators found lead above 1 ppm in a wide variety of spices and condiments, with some levels as high as 170 ppm (in cinnamon) and 740 ppm (in turmeric).
A separate study, conducted in Boston, involved the purchase and analysis of 32 turmeric samples. The researchers detected lead in all of the samples (with a range of 0.03-99.50 ppm), with 16 of the samples exceeding 0.1 ppm (the FDA limit for lead in candy). The paper concluded that turmeric was being “intentionally adulterated with lead” and recommended additional measures on the part of FDA to reduce the risk of lead-contaminated spices entering the U.S. market and the establishment of a maximum allowable level of lead in spices.
Although the above studies did not report the form of lead detected, the high level of lead in many of the samples is not consistent with environmental contamination. A newspaper report in Bangladesh indicated that turmeric traders used lead chromate to improve the appearance of raw turmeric and quoted one spice company as saying that some of their suppliers admitted to using lead chromate. Lead consumption can be extremely toxic, especially to children. There is evidence that lead contamination of spices in the United States is an ongoing problem and that some of it is due to the intentional addition of lead-based pigments for color. This should be one area of focus for industry and regulatory agencies to ensure we reduce this risk to consumers.
*Given the nature of food fraud, it is fair to say that the data we collect is only the tip of the food fraud “iceberg”. Therefore, while this data indicates that these ingredients are prone to fraud in a number of ways, we cannot say that these numbers represent the true scope of fraud worldwide.
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
Meat: The two main concerns with meat fraud are species substitution and misrepresentation of production practices. The recent scandals involving horse meat and sick cows slaughtered for meat illustrate the continuing incentive to substitute less expensive species and to misrepresent the production practices of meat.
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.
Laboratory reports recently acquired by the Freedom of Information Law from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets show the Sol Andino brand ground cumin to contain 1090 ppm lead as well as 259 ppm chromium. The spice was also analyzed by IS:2446, 1980 method, “Detection of Lead Chromate in Chillies, Curry Powder and Turmeric by diphenyl carbizide.” A positive result was given, indicating the presence of hexavalent chromium, which is a component of lead chromate. Lead chromate is a yellow pigment, not allowed in food anywhere in the world as it is toxic, containing both lead and hexavalent chromium. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets posted a Class I recall of the Sol Andino ground cumin on July 10, 2017, without mention of the extremely high concentration of lead in the product.
The author could find no record of an FDA recall for the Sol Andino brand cumin powder containing excessive lead.
Some of us remember the four FDA Class I recalls of Pran brand turmeric for excessive lead in October 2013. These recalls were initiated by the New York State Health Department due to an illness complaint—most likely a child with high blood lead levels. The recalled Pran brand turmeric contained 28–53 ppm lead.
Also worthy of mention is the FDA/Illinois Class I recall of Nabelsi brand Thyme (actually a spice mix containing Thyme) on March 17, 2017.
“There have been two cases of high blood levels of lead associated with this product to date. Both cases have been reported through the Illinois Department of Public Health, Environmental Health Protection.”
According to the recall, the “Thyme” was found to contain 422 ppm lead.
Wondering if the 422 ppm lead was caused by adulteration of the “Thyme” with lead chromate or another lead pigment, a food chemist at the New York State Food Laboratory (a Division of NYS Dept. of Agriculture and Markets) requested from Illinois a sub-sample of the “Thyme” for analysis. Lab analysis of the spice found 323 ppm lead, 109 ppm chromium and a positive result for the chromate test. Thus, this recalled “Thyme” contains lead chromate.
In both cases, Pran turmeric and Nabelsi Thyme, illness complaints led to the recall of lead adulterated spices.
The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets has a proactive program. Random samples of spices are sampled from retail markets and subsequently analyzed for unallowed colorants, undeclared allergens and heavy metals. In 2016 this resulted in the Oriental Packing Class I recall of 377,000 lb. of turmeric containing spices for excessive lead. (A typo in the FDA recall attributes the recall to the New York State Health Department, instead of the New York State Dept. of Agriculture and Markets.)
Still, it’s even better to analyze spices being imported into the country at receiving warehouses before the product reaches retail markets. Lead concentrations above 10 ppm can be determined instantaneously with a handheld XRF analyzer.