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 3 – 2014

This week on the RASFF database (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) we have two recalls from consumers in EU, following an alert notification. Italy is not doing well this week…

– Foreign bodies: rat droppings in dates, following a consumer complaint. Origin unknown, packaged in Italy, notification from Denmark. Distributed also to Norway and Sweden;

– Allergens: undeclared milk ingredient in biscuits, following an official control on the market. Origin Italy, notification from Slovenia.

Between the  information for follow-up, we have another recall:

Residues of veterinary medicinal products: prohibited substance chloramphenicol in papaine enzyme formulations, following company’s own check. Origin raw materials Democratic Republic of Congo, notification from United Kingdom, distributed also to Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Romania, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.

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

– Pathogenic micro-organisms: Bacillus cereus in aromatic herbs mix, following a food poisoning. Origin Germany, notification from France;

– Mycotoxins: ochratoxin A in garlic powder, following an official control on the market. Origin India, notification from Netherlands, distributed also to Poland, France and Hungary;

– Composition: high content of morphine in poppy seeds, following an official control on the market. Origin Hungary, notification from Czech Republic, distributed also to Slovakia and Poland;

– Heavy metals: mercury in frozen mako, following an official control on the market. Origin Spain, notification from Italy;

– Pathogenic micro-organisms: Salmonella spp. in spices mix, following an official control on the market. Origin of the raw materials unknown, packaged and notification from France, distributed also to Belgium;

– Heavy metals: mercury in mako, following an official control on the market. Origin Spain, notification from Italy;

Heavy metals: mercury in swordfish loins, following an official control on the market. Origin Spain, notification from Italy;

Residues of veterinary medicinal products: unauthorised substance leucomalachite green in frozen Climbing perch, following an official control on the market. Origin Vietnam, notification from Germany (via Netherlands).

In Belgium we have also a seizure of chilled chicken fillets for a suspect of fraud related to indication of origin. Origin Belgium, distributed also to Netherlands.

Regarding border rejections we have, among the others, Salmonella Heidelberg in frozen marinated chicken and in frozen salted chicken breast fillets from Brazil, Salmonella group C1 in frozen salted chickenbreast fillets from Thailand and Salmonella spp. in frozen clams from Vietnam. Aflatoxins in unshelled pistachios, pistachio bars, hazelnut kernels and in roasted mixed nuts from Turkey, in pistachio nuts from the United Sates, in raw peanuts without shell and blanched peanuts from Brazil, in almonds from Australia and in blanched peanut kernels from China. Thawing of and unsuitable means of transport for bulk frozen sepia from India, chloramphenicol in frozen red swamp crayfish from China, poor temperature control of frozen tuna loins from the Philippines and of frozen hake from Argentina, parasitic infestation with Anisakis of chilles mackerels from Morocco. Unauthorised irradiation of ginkgo biloba extract from China, imidacloprid and unauthorised substance diafenthiuron in chinese green tea from Hong Kong, profenofos and tebuconazole in centella from Sri Lanka, Salmonella spp., profenofos and triazophos in curry leaves from India, parathion-methyl in chickpeas from India, formetanate in fresh peppers from Turkey, monocrotophos in okra from India, unauthorised substance carbofuran in aubergines from the Dominican Republic and unauthorised substance dichlorvos in oloyin beans from Nigeria.

For feed we have border rejections for Salmonella spp. in dog chew from India, aflatoxins in groundnut kernels for birdfeed from Sudan, too high count of Enterobacteriaceae in fish meal from Chile, Salmonella Braenderup in roasted guar meal from India.

For food contact materials we have an alert notification, followed by a recall from consumers, for migration of cadmium and lead (heavy metals) from glasses. Origin China (via Netherlands), notification from Poland.

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