The next food fraud? Worse than the ”Horsegate”

If the explosion of the infamous “Horsemeat Scandal” was greeted at first with disbelief and barely concealed laughter from the public and media, the following concern for a public health risk revealed itself in a short time as completely not founded. None of these two reactions seem to be triggered by what could be the next food fraud scandal on a global scale.

The affected product, in this case, are spices (especially cumin, paprika and various mix) which, at a level not yet identified of the supply chain, have been adulterated with crushed almond shells, with the clear aim  of financial gain. The real risk – and what distinguishes this case from ”Horsegate” – is that such conduct poses a serious risk to the health of allergic consumers. Almond nuts

The tree nuts category, indeed, is one of the allergens that more easily could cause violent anaphylactic shock; the risk is more than real, since the analytical detection of almond’s traces (probably remained caked on the shells) was the cause of dozens of recalls and withdrawals from the market started in UK, US, Canada and several other European countries.

Although the intent of the contamination has not yet been demonstrated, it is clear that such a wide spread of withdrawals and recalls worldwide, as well as the involvement in the issue of many different brands on the market (even global retailers such as Morrisons and Sainsbury’s) and the different types product, clearly suggest a deliberate fraud.

Spices have quite high prices, which allow good profit margins through this kind of adulteration: in addition, not always the systems of internal traceability of the small and medium-size companies are adequate to the high complexity required by management of these raw materials and their mix. Finally, as highlighted by Prof. Chris Elliot in some recent interviews, the last season saw in Gujarat (India) a cumin harvest absolutely disastrous because of the weather, and this caused a spike in prices.

Although a British company, Bart Ingredients, has challenged the analytical methods used by the British “Food Standards Agency” (FSA), advancing the hypothesis of “false positives” attributed to another ingredient (the “Mahaleb”, extracted from a variety of cherry tree), the chances that this is proved true for all cases found seems utterly unrealistic.

UK, was the European country most affected by the phenomenon. Here the cumin’s consumption as a flavor enhancer in soups and processed products, and also in combination with other spices such as paprika, chili and curry, is very high. The extent of the contamination, however, is not yet fully established. At the moment there have been no reports of deaths or hospitalizations due to the issue, but unfortunately could only be a matter of time. The spices are used in many processed and prepacked foods and it will be very difficult to detect all the products contaminated and to remove them all from the shelves (e.g. the first recalls involved kit for fajitas in British supermarket).

This will be the first “stress test” for the newborn FSA “Food Crime United” and the UK food safety system as a whole, after its reorganization following the “Elliot Review”. Important signals, however, should also be sent by the European Commission, now engaged with the revision of Reg. (EC) n. 882/2004 and with the implementation of appropriate measures to fight frauds.

Mislabeling – Tonic Water – Recall in Australia (undeclared quinine)

An interesting recall in Australia, since also in EU is mandatory declare on the label the presence of quinine as flavou​ring in such beverages. For more information about this recall click here.

Quinine is a natural white crystalline alkaloid having antipyretic, antimalarial, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory properties and a bitter taste. Quinine occurs naturally in the bark of the cinchona tree, though it has also been synthesized in the laboratory. The medicinal properties of the cinchona tree were originally discovered by the Quechua, who are indigenous to Peru and Bolivia; later, the Jesuits were the first to bring cinchona to Europe. Today is used as flavour component of tonic water and bitter lemon. Allergic reactions to quinine can be severe and can affect multiple organs.

Schweppes Australia P/L has recalled Schweppes Indian Tonic Water from Coles, Woolworths, IGA and other independent retail stores in ACT, NSW and QLD due to non compliant labelling (some individual bottles of tonic water are incorrectly labelled as ‘Soda water’ and therefore the quinine declaration is missing). Consumers who are sensitive to quinine may have a reaction if they consume this product. Consumers sensitive to quinine should not consume this product and should return the products to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Notified: 30/12/2014

Package description and size: 4 glass bottles contained within a printed cardboard sleeve -300ml x 4 pack

BEST BEFORE 21 OCT 15 and 22 OCT 15 – Factory code 3212

Country of origin: Australia

Contact

Schweppes Australia P/L – 1800 761 470, www.schweppesaustralia.com.au

(Source: FSANZ website)