Spices claim high prices and are a popular target for food fraud. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Food Autority discarded 5,000 kg of adulterated spices in a Pakistan, and legal action will be taken against the perpetrators. The fraudulent additions included inedible items and unauthorized food colors.
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.
Honey is defined as “the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees” from the nectar of plants. However, there is not currently an FDA standard of identity for honey in the United States, which would further define and specify the allowed methods of producing, manufacturing and labeling honey (there is, however, a nonbinding guidance document for honey). Some of the details of honey production that a standard of identity might address include allowable timing and levels of supplemental feeding of bees with sugar syrups and the appropriate use of antibiotics for disease treatment.
In circumstances where strict regulatory standards for foods are not available, they may be created by other organizations.
What Is a Food Standard?
A food standard is “a set of criteria that a food must meet if it is to be suitable for human consumption, such as source, composition, appearance, freshness, permissible additives, and maximum bacterial content.”1
To ensure quality, facilitate trade, and reduce fraud, everyone in the supply chain must have a shared expectation of what each food or ingredient should be. Public standards set those expectations and allow them to be shared. They help ensure that stakeholders have a common definition of quality and purity, as well as the test methods and specifications used to demonstrate that quality and purity. Public standards help ensure fair trade, quality and integrity in food supply chains.
How Is a Standard Different from a Method?
A method is generally an analytical technique to assess a particular property of the content or safety of a food or food ingredient. For example, methods for detection of nitrates in meat products or baby food, coliforms in nut products, or high fructose syrups in honey. Methods are an important component of food standards.
A food standard goes a step further and provides an integrated set of components to define a substance and enable verification of that substance. Standards generally include a description of the substance and its function, one or more identification tests and assays (along with acceptance criteria) to appropriately characterize the substance and ensure its quality, a description of possible impurities and limits for those impurities (if applicable), and other information as needed (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Anatomy of an FCC Standard (Source: Food Science Program, Food Chemicals Codex, USP)
A standard defines both what a food or food ingredient should be and documents how to demonstrate compliance with that definition.
Public Standards and Food Fraud Prevention
Many of the foods prone to fraud are those that are not simple food ingredients, but agricultural products that can be more complex to characterize and identify (such as honey, extra virgin olive oil, spices, etc.). Milk products are an example of a commodity that is prone to fraud with a wide range of adulterants (for example, fluid cow’s milk is associated with 155 adulterants in the Food Fraud Database). Ensuring the quality and purity of a product link milk requires implementation of multiple analytical techniques or the development of non-targeted methods.
The creation of effective public standards with input by a range of stakeholders will be particularly important for ensuring the quality, safety and accurate labeling of these high value commodities in the future.
A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition 2005, Oxford University Press.
The Food Chemicals Codex is a source of public standards for foods and food ingredients. It was created by the U.S. FDA and the National Institute of Medicine in 1966 and is currently published by the nonprofit organization USP. The FCC contains 1250 standards for food ingredients, which are developed by expert volunteers and posted for public comment before publication.
The Decernis Food Fraud Database is a continuously updated collection of food fraud records curated specifically to support vulnerability assessments. Information is gathered from global sources and is searchable by ingredient, adulterant, country, and hazard classification. Decernis also partners with standards bodies to provide information about fraudulent adulterants to support standards development.
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
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.
In the following article, the author reports finding Sudan dye in spices in New York State, making the argument for Class I recalls.
In New York State (NYS), Department of Agriculture and Markets food inspectors routinely sample domestic and imported food from retail markets for food dye determination. For decades, the NYS Food Lab has examined both domestic and imported food for undeclared allowed food dyes and unallowed food dyes utilizing a paper chromatography method. This method works well with water-soluble acid dyes, of which food dyes are a subset.
The NYS Food Lab has participated in four sets of the FAPAS proficiency tests: Artificial Colours in Soft Drinks and Artificial Colours in Sugar Confectionary (Boiled Sweets). The qualitative analysis was by paper, thin layer silica and thin layer cellulose chromatography. Satisfactory results were obtained.
The paper/thin layer chromatography method is a qualitative non-targeted method and has a limit of detection of approximately 1 to 5 ppm (parts per million) depending on the dye. If an unallowed dye is detected, the food product is violated as adulterated and results are forwarded to the FDA.
Some countries have a maximum concentration of allowed food dye in a food product. For example India has a 100 ppm to 200 ppm maximum for their allowed food dyes, in some food, singly or in combination.1
In early 2011, a food sample of pink colored sugar coated sesame seed from Pakistan was sent to the lab for color determination. The paper chromatography method could not determine any dyes. (As found out later, the unknown pink dye was not an acid dye.) From research it was found that Rhodamine B was a pink water soluble basic dye commonly used as a food adulterant. A standard was ordered and then a qualitative high performance Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (HPLC/MS/MS) method was developed (Waters UPLC Aquity w/Waters Premier XE triple quadrapole) to determine Rhodamine B. After utilizing this new method, Rhodamine B was found in the sugar coated sesame seed.
Rhodamine B is an industrial dye and is not allowed in food anywhere in the world. Industrial dyes are not allowed in food because they are toxic; in fact, some industrial dyes are used for suicide.2,3,4 In addition, industrial dyes are not made to “food grade” specifications with regard to dye purity, heavy metal (i.e., arsenic and lead) concentrations, subsidiary dye concentrations and concentrations of unreacted precursors. From additional research of news articles and research papers, more industrial dyes were identified as common food adulterants; more dye standards were ordered and incorporated into the HPLC/MS/MS method. The NYS Food Lab’s current HPLC/MS/MS surveillance method includes 36 compounds: Water soluble “acid dyes” and “basic dyes”, organic solvent soluble “solvent dyes”, and several pigments.
The HPLC/MS/MS method has a limit of detection in the ppb (parts per billion) range for some dyes and parts per trillion for other dyes. The FDA has an action level of 1 ppb for certain water-soluble basic dyes (such as Malachite Green) when used as a fish antibiotic. However, due to concern that unallowed dyes might be present due to contamination from packaging, the food lab subsequently set an action level of 1 ppm for unallowed dyes determined by the HPLC/MS/MS method. At levels over 1 ppm, detection of dyes in food would indicate intentional dye usage for coloring food.
The food lab has participated in three rounds of the FAPAS proficiency test, “Illegal Dyes found in Hot Pepper Sauce”. The qualitative analysis was by LC/MS/MS. Satisfactory results were obtained.
Sudan Dyes Considered to be Carcinogenic
“Sudan dyes are not allowed to be added to food. There has been worldwide concern about the contamination of chili powder, other spices, and baked foods with Sudan dyes since they may have genotoxic and carcinogenic effects (according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer)”.5
“There have been several documented cases of spices being contaminated with carcinogenic dyes such as Sudan I or lead oxide. We therefore assume that the presence of these chemicals in spice ingredients will be considered a reasonably foreseeable hazard under this rule.”6
“Sudan red dyes have been used to color paprika, chili powders, and curries, but are also known carcinogens and are banned for use in foods.” 7
Sudan Dyes are a family of more than 10 synthetic industrial “solvent dyes”. Solvent dyes are typically used to color oils and waxes, including shoe polish. Sudan dyes that the food lab has found in spices include Sudan 1 (Sudan I), and Sudan 4 (Sudan IV). Sudan 1, also known as Solvent Yellow 14, is an orange colored dye. Sudan 4, also known as Solvent Red 24, is a blue shade red colored dye.
Positive identification of Sudan 4 is often hindered by the existence of a positional isomer, Sudan Red B (Solvent Red 25). This problem was addressed by using the HPLC/MS/MS method with a transition unique to Sudan 4 (381.2 > 276.0). This information was obtained from one of the two corroborating labs. The food lab has recently identified a transition unique to Sudan Red B (381.2 > 366.1).
Sudan Dyes Found in Spices in Europe
In March 2001, Europe began discovering Sudan dyes in spices. A February 2017 search of Europe’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) for “unauthorised colour” and “sudan” in the “herbs and spices” food category resulted in 429 notifications.
The 429 RASFF notifications arranged by year and by maximum concentration reported of Sudan 1 and Sudan 4 during that year are listed in Table I.
In a search of the FDA’s Import Alert 45-02 (Detention Without Physical Examination and Guidance of Foods Containing Illegal and/or Undeclared Colors) the author could find no record of spices violated for Sudan dye adulteration.
In a search of the FDA’s Enforcement Reports the author could find no record of spices violated for Sudan dye adulteration.
Industrial Dyes in Food: Class II or Class I Recall?
The NYS Food Lab and the FDA routinely find imported food containing unallowed food dyes such as Ponceau 4R, Amaranth and Carmoisine. These unallowed food dyes are allowed for use in food in other parts of the world, while not allowed in the USA. Foods containing unallowed food dyes are violated as adulterated and a Class II recall will occur. Sudan dyes are not allowed as food dyes anywhere in the world. They are industrial dyes, used in coloring oils and waxes, such as shoe polish.
“Class I recall: A situation in which there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to a violative product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.
Class II recall: A situation in which use of or exposure to a violative product may cause temporary or medically reversible adverse health consequences or where the probability of serious adverse health consequences is remote.”8
With a Class II recall, there is no consumer notification. In contrast, as part of a Class I recall, a press release is issued. Consumers who have purchased the product might be informed and may discard the product or return it for a refund.
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