Results of first EU-wide survey about herbs and spices authenticity
The European Commission has published the results of the first coordinated control plan on the authenticity of herbs and spices launched by Directorate-general for Health and Food Safety and carried out by 21 EU Member States, Switzerland and Norway.
This was the first time national authorities in charge of food controls and the European Commission pooled their experience and resources together to focus on the herbs and spices sector. The goal was to protect consumers from misleading and potentially unsafe products.
Nearly 10,000 analyses were carried out by the JRC on 1885 samples, using a range of state-of-the-art analytical techniques to assess the authenticity of six different herbs and spices.
The percentage of samples which were deemed at risk of adulteration were 17% for pepper, 14% for cumin, 11% for curcuma, 11% for saffron and 6% for paprika/chilli. Oregano was identified as the most vulnerable with 48% of samples at risk of contamination, with olive leaves in most cases.
Authenticity and purity of herbs and spices were assessed against relevant ISO standards. In case a sample did not comply with these provisions for extraneous matter and total ash, it was considered to be suspicious of adulteration.
On the basis of these results the Commission has already called on the operators for an immediate action plan to rectify the situation that is harmful to consumers’ interests and health, but also to the herbs and spices sector itself and its fair operators.
The Commission also invited national authorities to increase official controls in the sector, with the aim to prevent fraudulent practices and sanction fraud perpetrators.
Questions and answers
An EU Coordinated control plan is an agreed concerted action with Member States to address targeted control issues. It is organised on the basis of [Regulation (EU) 2017/625 (Official Controls Regulation)]. It is aimed at establishing the prevalence of hazards in feed, food and animals and better understanding the extent of non-compliances including fraudulent practices in a given sector. The plan typically prescribes sampling and methods of analysis to be implemented by the participating countries and runs for a limited period of time. Results are typically presented in a summary public report. The implementation of a coordinated control plan is without prejudice to any other official controls carried out by Member States in the framework of their national control programmes.
Information available to the European Commission and to Member States indicates that adulterated herbs and spices are present on the EU market but remain often undetected. Therefore, in 2019 the European Commission set up a coordinated control plan inviting the EU Member States to sample certain herbs and spices and send them for analysis to its Joint Research Centre. Norway and Switzerland also decided to join the EU action.
The European Parliament's report adopted in 2014 "The food crisis, fraud in the food chain and the control thereof" identified 10 products, including herbs and spices as being most at risk from fraud. An inventory made by researchers from Wageningen University and Research (Netherlands) places herbs and spices at the top of nine products most vulnerable to adulteration. French authorities (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes) investigated in 2019 anomalies in the domestic spice market and found irregularities in 26.4% of the 138 samples (cumin, curcuma, paprika/chilli, oregano, pepper, saffron). In an earlier investigation, carried out in 2016, the suspicion rate was 50%.
The objective of the coordinated control plan (CCP) was to establish the prevalence of non-compliances and of possible illegal practices in the marketing of herbs and spices in the European Economic Area.
The testing activities focussed on the detection of a (partial) substitution of the named herb/spice by another botanical material, the extension by addition of fillers (e.g. starch, flour, dust, chalk, etc.) and/or the enhancement of colour by a non-authorised additive (e.g. synthetic dye). Other fraud types such as misdescription of origin or agricultural production system (conventional/ organic) or conservation treatment (ionizing radiation) were not part of the CCP.
Herbs and spices are a very diverse group of products; therefore, a selection had to be made taking into account their trade volumes, commercial value and history of fraud cases. The following six were included in the CCP:
- Cumin (Cuminum cyminum);
- Curcuma (Curcuma longa);
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare);
- Paprika/chilli (Capsicum annuum) ;
- Pepper (Piper nigrum);
- Saffron (Crocus sativus).
Twenty-one EU Member StatesSee note 1, plus Norway and Switzerland, participated in the coordinated control plan by collecting samples of herbs and spices at the earliest possible control point of the food chain (border control posts, producers, importers and wholesalers, storage/processing/packaging establishments); less samples were taken at the end (distribution and retail level).
The majority of the samples were processed herbs and spices, which are more susceptible to fraudulent practices (i.e. ground or crushed). Samples were submitted to the Joint Research Center of the European Commission for testing.
Note 1 - Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden
Nearly 10.000 analyses were carried out on 1885 samples using a range of state-of-the-art analytical techniques to assess the purity of the samples (‘true to the name’ meaning that no significant departure from purity criteria as expected from relevant ISO standards would be expected).
JRC’s quality system is ISO 9001 certified and certain testing activities of JRC Geel are ISO 17025:2017 accredited. However, the methods of analysis used for generating the reported data are outside the scope of accreditation but all of them were single-laboratory validated.
The detection identified products significantly departing from purity standards as established by relevant ISO standards.
On that basis, the JRC found that the overall rate of suspicious samples was 17% (329 of a total of 1885 analysed samples), which is less than what was previously reported in the scientific literature or by national food control institutions.
The oregano supply chain was most vulnerable as 48% of samples were suspicious of being adulterated, in most cases with olive leaves. The percentage of samples which were suspicious of adulteration were 17% for pepper, 14% for cumin, 11% for curcuma, and 11% for saffron. The lowest suspicion rate (6%) was found for paprika/chilli.
The majority of suspicious samples contained non-declared plant material; in 2% of the analysed spice samples non-authorised dyes were detected. One sample contained a high level of lead chromate.
No specific trend regarding the rate of potential fraudulent manipulations along the supply chain (country of origin/importers/wholesalers/processors/packagers) could be observed. However, the number of samples obtained at certain stages (domestic production, local markets, border control, and internet) was too low to enable statistically meaningful comparisons.
The coordinated control plan is until now the largest investigation into the authenticity of culinary herbs and spices in terms of participating countries and number of analyses but the results were never expected to provide a full representation of the EEA market. They provide an idea of the extent and nature of the possible non-compliances and fraudulent practices taking place in that sector. There are hundreds of herbs and spices and the coordinated control plan selected only six of them.
Specific provisions for authenticity and purity of herbs and spices do not exist in the EU regulatory framework.
Requirements of the General Food Law (Article 8)[See note 1] which aim “at the protection of the interests of consumers and shall provide a basis for consumers to make informed choices in relation to the foods they consume” and those of the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (Article 7)[See note 2] which foresees that “Food information shall not be misleading, particularly as to the characteristics of the food and, in particular, as to its nature, identity, properties, composition, quantity, durability, country of origin or place of provenance, method of manufacture or production…” apply.
Authenticity and purity of herbs and spices was assessed against relevant ISO standards, in particular the provisions for extraneous matter and total ash, formed the basis for assessing purity of herbs and spices:
- ISO 959-2:1998 Pepper (Piper nigrum L.), whole or ground -- Specification -- Part 2: White pepper
- ISO 7540:2006 Ground paprika (Capsicum annuum L.) – Specification
- ISO 972:1997 Chillies and capsicums, whole or ground (powdered) – Specification
- ISO 3632-1:2011 Spices -- Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) -- Part 1: Specification
- ISO 7925:1999 Dried oregano (Origanum vulgare L.) -- Whole or ground leaves – Specification
- ISO 5562:1983 Turmeric, whole or ground (powdered) -- Specification
- ISO 6465:2009 Spices -- Cumin (Cuminum cyminum L.) – Specification
Note 1 Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January2002 laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Safety Authority and laying down procedures in matters of food safety
Note 2 Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011 on the provision of food information to consumers, amending Regulations (EC) No 1924/2006 and (EC) No 1925/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council, and repealing Commission Directive 87/250/EEC, Council Directive 90/496/EEC, Commission Directive 1999/10/EC, Directive 2000/13/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, Commission Directives 2002/67/EC and 2008/5/EC and Commission Regulation (EC) No 608/2004
In case a sample did not comply with the ISO provisions for extraneous matter and total ash, it was considered to be suspicious of adulteration. In addition, the outcome of additional tests targeting certain biomarkers of herbs and spices was used as supporting evidence.
In case that some non-compliances could be justified by poor agricultural practices (contamination with extraneous plants and foreign matter during harvest) or by accidental cross-contamination along processing operations, enhancing colouration of herbs and spices with non-authorised dyes and lead chromate or substitution with olive leaves (a non-edible plant product) can hardly be explained as an adventitious contamination.
The herbs and spices supply chain is global, complex, and involves many stages where fraudulent manipulations can happen. Vulnerabilities that may affect the chances of adulteration include the length of the supply chain, fraud history, seasonality and availability of the crop, weather events, natural disasters, cultural and geo-political events, economic situation, enforcement of food law, prevalence of corruption, and advances in technology to mask fraud.
On one hand, the global demand for herbs and spices is on the rise, with an increasing popularity of the food service sector for their use in ready-made meals, interest in new tastes and ethnic cuisine, health-related claims, etc. On the other hand, supply chains in the herbs and spices sectors tend to be long, complex and can pass through many countries. Often, herbs and spices are farmed at a subsistence scale in non-EU countries and there are frequently many intermediaries in the supply chain offering opportunities for malpractices and/or fraudulent practices.
At consumer level, it may not be feasible to identify characteristics, taste or texture of herbs and spices and it may even be impossible to identify malpractices when herbs and spices are crushed and mixed.
In the herbs and spices sector, the most common forms of fraudulent practice are:
- The (partial) substitution of the named herb/spice by another botanical species;
- The increase of weight and volume by addition of fillers (e.g. starch, flour, dust, chalk, etc.);
- The enhancement of colour by a non-authorised additive (e.g. synthetic dye);
- The mislabelling of geographical origin and/or botanical species;
- False declaration as organic products;
- The use of non-authorised or non-declared processes (for example, decontamination for instance through irradiation or use of banned chemicals such as ethylene oxide).
Health risks can occur as a result of adulteration including substitution of valuable food constituents as well as addition of less valuable parts. They can cause more than an economic threat. The threat to the public could be direct (the consumer is put at immediate risk from a short-term exposure leading to acute toxicity or lethality) or indirect (the consumer is put at risk over long-term exposure with potential chronic effects, genotoxicity and carcinogenicity). A serious threat could be an allergic reaction to an allergenic ingredient that has not been declared on the label. The use of crushed plant material (such as olive leaves in the adulteration of oregano) can also pose a health risk to the consumer. As these leaves are not produced for human consumption, their production history is unknown, which may introduce a hazard in the food chain.
At first, primary responsibility for ensuring compliance with food law – and in particular the protection of consumers' interests, including fair practices in food trade - lies with the food business operators. Operators have to provide accurate, clear and easy to understand food information for the consumer and consumers shall not be misled as to the characteristics of the food, as to its nature, identity and composition. The Directorate General for Health and Food Safety called the operators for an immediate action plan to remedy the situation that is detrimental to consumers health, to consumers interests and ultimately to the herbs and spices sector itself and its fair operators.
The control of fraudulent practices in the food chain is primarily the responsibility of Member States. Support has already been provided via strengthening the legal framework for combating food fraud. The Official Controls Regulation now enables and requires Member States to target their controls on those areas of the food chain they deem to be most at risk of fraud. It also requires that the financial penalties imposed by Member States reflect the economic advantage gained by the operator or a percentage of their turnover. Within that legal framework, the Commission is also inviting authorities to increase official controls in the sector to continue deterring fraudulent practices and sanctioning fraud perpetrators.
Without prejudice of covert investigations, Member States authorities continue to express various and numerous interests to coordinate controls at EU level. These interests notably include the issue of water retention agents and misdeclared glazing of frozen fish fillets; fraudulent manipulations of fruit juices such as addition of water and sugar, presence of non-declared fruit juices, infringement of labelling rules regarding the use of flavourings, colourings and preservatives; the adulteration of honey with extraneous sugars; the illegal sales of plant protection products through e-commerce; or trafficking of dogs and cats.
The Commission is currently coordinating an enforcement action aiming at removing from the EU market plastic food contact materials (table and kitchenware) made of illegal plant based additives (such as bamboo fibres) and preventing their importation. See more