The spice trade under scrutiny

| February 24, 2015 | 1 Comment nut protein in herbs and spices is a hot topic and a developing food safety problem. The issue first surfaced in the USA and Canada in December last year, when samples of cumin began testing positive for peanut protein, triggering a series of recalls and prompting the FDA to issue advice to consumers with peanut allergy to avoid food products containing cumin. Alerted by events in the US, officials at the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) tested herbs and spices for nut protein and found undeclared almond in samples of cumin and spice mixes. Further testing suggested that paprika used in the mixes was the source of the almond protein. That led to further recalls for products on sale in the UK. Since then, a number of spice mix and seasoning products have been recalled in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, after they too were found to contain almond protein.

So far there is no evidence that the incidents in Europe and North America are connected and nothing to indicate whether the presence of undeclared nut protein in spices is accidental or deliberate. Nevertheless, the FSA is taking the issue seriously enough to hold a workshop with industry representatives to look in detail at the supply chains for herbs and spices and seek out any weak points. I suspect that laboratories around the world are currently receiving a sudden influx of herb and spice samples to be tested for nut proteins. Without wishing to make unwarranted assumptions, the parallels with the horsemeat in beef scandal of 2013 are hard to ignore. First, discovery of contamination/adulteration almost by accident, followed by a gradual uncovering of the true extent of the problem as more and more products are tested. The difference here is that there is a real food safety hazard for consumers who are highly allergic to nuts.

According to some food fraud experts, another difference between this incident and the horsemeat crisis is the existence of warning signs that adulteration problems might be expected. The price of cumin rose dramatically last year following a poor harvest in India – source of 70% of the world’s spices – providing a strong incentive for unscrupulous traders to add cheaper ingredients to a valuable product and boost profits. Apparently, peanut shells can be added to ground cumin without any obvious effect on quality. After the events of 2013, all the experts agreed that better intelligence was needed to anticipate problems. When a widely used food ingredient is suddenly in short supply alarm bells should surely ring, at least prompting closer scrutiny of the supply chain. Did that happen? If so, it doesn’t appear to have been very effective.

It may turn out that the causes of the incidents North America and Europe are indeed unrelated. Either could be a result of cross contamination on a processing line for example. But the fact remains that the presence of nut protein was detected more by accident than design. Two years on from the horsemeat adulteration scandal, the systems designed to protect consumers from foods that are contaminated – deliberately or accidentally – may look better on paper, but how well do they actually work?

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