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.

Food recalls in EU – Week 14 – 2014

This week on the RASFF database (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) we are plenty of recalls from consumers in EU in the alert notification (9):

– Biotoxins: Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP) toxins in chilled scallops, following an official control on the market. Origin France, notified by France, distributed also to Italy and Spain;

– Composition: too high content of vitamin B6 in food supplement, following an official control on the market. Origin United States (via United Kingdom), notified by France;

– Composition: too high content of vitamin B6 in food supplement, following an official control on the market. Origin United States (via United Kingdom), notified by France;

 Composition: too high content of vitamin B6 in food supplement, following an official control on the market. Origin United States (via Netherlands), notified by France;

– Foreign bodies: glass fragments in apple puree,  company’s own check. Origin Poland, notified by Germany;

– Pathogenic micro-organisms: Salmonella Spp. in frozen duck meat, following company’s own check. Origin Germany, notified by Finland;

– Pathogenic micro-organisms: Salmonella Spp. in chilled rear shank of pork baked with parsley, following company’s own check. Origin Belgium, notified by France, distributed also to Luxembourg;

– Pathogenic micro-organisms: Salmonella Infantis in food supplement, following a consumer complaint. Origin Germany, notified by Germany, distributed also to Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Romania, Spain and Switzerland;

– Pesticide residues: unauthorised substance chlorate in frozen organic broccoli, following an official control on the market. Origin Spain, France and Hungary, notified by Germany.

We have also three recalls, following information for attention notification:

– Mycotoxins: Ochratoxin A in soft rolls with fig filling, following company’s own check. Origin Serbia, notified by Slovenia;

– Industrial contaminants: benzo(a)pyrene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in low fat cocoa powder, following an official control on the market. Origin China, notified by Hungary;

 Pathogenic micro-organisms: Salmonella Spp. in chilled organic chicken chipolata, following company’s own check. Origin Belgium, notified by Belgium, distributed also to Luxembourg;

Between the alert notifications, followed by a withdrawal from the market of the product:

– Heavy metals: mercury in frozen unskinned blue shark, following an official control on the market. Origin Spain, notified by Italy;

– Pathogenic micro-organisms: Bacillus cereus in cumin powder, following an official control on the market. Origin Netherlands, notified by France.

Regarding border rejections we have, among the others, Salmonella in paan leaves from India, Salmonella and too high count of Enterobacteriaceae in fishmeal from Mauritania, Norovirus in frozen boiled clams and in frozen blanched clams from Vietnam, Aflatoxins in diced hazelnuts and pistachios from Turkey, in pistachios and in pistachio nuts from Iran and in groundnuts from China, Ochratoxin A in red raisins from Afghanistan, absence of health certificate(s) for corn sticks from China, unauthorised substance dichlorvos in cashew kernels from Nigeria, dinotefuran in green tea from Japan, E 451 – triphosphate (on label) unauthorised in chilled raw scallops from the United States, malathion and fenthion in dried white beans from Ethiopia, acetamiprid in aubergines (eggplants) and permethrin in fresh peppers  from the Dominican Republic.

For feed, we have an alert notification, followed by a withdrawal from the market:

– Biotoxins: meadow saffron in hay, following a consumer complaint. Origin Germany, notified by Netherlands;

For food contact materials we have a couple of border rejections: migration of cadmium and of lead from ceramic mug set and of nickel from electric oven from China.

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