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.

EU updates list of imports of plant origin subject to reinforced border checks

Controls performed at European Union borders on the basis of Regulation (EC) No 669/2009 continue to deliver results and, as a consequence, the EU is removing some products from the list of feed and food of non-animal origin that are subject to an increased level of official controls by national competent authorities at the border. As a result of the satisfactory results reported by Member States, curry from India will be de-listed from the Regulation’s Annex I. This commodity will therefore no longer be subject to the reinforced scheme (the checks performed by competent authorities will again be ‘routine’ ones).

Concerning new listings, the following commodities will be added to the list of feed and food which are subject to reinforced border checks: table grapes (food) from Peru at a control frequency of physical and identity checks of 10% for the possible occurrence of pesticide residues and dried apricots (food) from Turkey at a control frequency of 10% for the possible presence of high levels of sulphites or of undeclared sulphites. Moreover, the control frequency for Brassica oleracea originating from China (‘Chinese broccoli’) will be increased from 20% to 50% in light of the high degree of non-compliance with the relevant Union legislation detected in the course of the controls carried out by the Member States on this commodity.

The Regulation will be amended by extending the transitional period referred to in its Article 19 for an additional term of five years, so as to allow the smooth entry into force of any new requirement that might result from the ongoing review of the provisions applicable to designated points of entry and to border controls in general.

At the meeting of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health on 6 June 2014, Member States endorsed the Commission’s proposal to amend the Annex to the Regulation by reflecting the abovementioned changes.

The amendments are expected to enter into force as of 1 July 2014.

(Source: DG Sanco)