The U.K.’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is also investigating peanut- and almond-tainted cumin. Chris Elliott, professor of food safety and director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, who last year led the U.K.’s horsemeat scandal investigation, said it was too early to draw firm conclusions. But, he noted, “whenever there’s a crop failure you always have to look to see what is the potential fraud that is behind that,” Dr. Elliott told The Independent newspaper. “This time the crop failure is cumin and it does seem to be that there has been fraud going on.”
The contamination in Europe has expanded beyond cumin to also include paprika. FSA and food safety agencies in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have issued warnings that a taco seasoning spice mix made by Santa Maria UK contains undeclared almond. Lab testing revealed that paprika in the spice mix is the most likely cause. The company issued a recall. Back in the U.S., the Giant Food Stores supermarket chain in late January removed Szeged Hungarian Paprika from its shelves due to possible peanut contamination. There is no indication that the cumin and paprika cases are linked.
Intentional adulteration of spices is far from uncommon. Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, has been found adulterated with glycerin, sandalwood dust, the yellow dye tartrazine, barium sulfate, and borax, according to a January 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service. Ground black pepper has been contaminated with added starch, papaya seeds, buckwheat, flour, twigs, and millet. Vanilla extract, turmeric, star anise, and chili powder are also prone to fraud, the report says.
“My instincts are that this is a real EMA situation,” Dr. Acheson says. “My advice to all those using cumin—and other spices that could be part of this EMA thinking—is to start testing incoming ingredients for allergens.” He also recommends companies seek to trace back their spice supply chains as far as possible. But “the tracebacks that I have personal knowledge of go a certain distance back and every vendor says they don’t have peanuts or almonds in their facility. So we don’t know where they came from,” Dr. Acheson tells Food Quality & Safety.
Agres is a freelance writer based in Laurel, Md. Reach him at email@example.com.