The ongoing recall of cumin and cumin-containing foods due to undeclared peanuts or almonds is almost certainly the result of purposeful economically motivated adulteration (EMA), food safety experts believe. Since late last year, food agencies in the U.S., Europe, and Canada have been tracking and reporting what the FDA calls the “largest recall of an allergen in spice.” About 700 different products have been recalled by more than 40 manufacturers and retailers in the U.S. alone since late last year.
“Although we don’t know who the bad guys are yet, it appears clear the motivation for the incident is economic gain, and that’s clearly food fraud,” says John Spink, PhD, director, Food Fraud Initiative, Michigan State University. David Acheson, MD, founder and CEO of The Acheson Group and a former FDA associate commissioner for foods, agrees. “I am 80 percent-plus confident that this is deliberate contamination. I can’t explain it otherwise,” he says.
One of the first companies to voluntarily recall products was Adams Flavors, Foods & Ingredients of Gonzales, Texas, which late last year declared it had been notified by a third-party supplier that one of its spice ingredients contained peanut proteins. Goya Foods subsequently recalled many of its black beans and black bean soup products while Whole Foods recalled more than 100 different products sold in its stores nationwide.
“This is likely to be one of the largest allergen recalls ever because spice mix becomes part of a sundry of products and the multiplier effect—the domino effect—is inevitable,” Craig W. Henry, PhD, vice president of business development for the Americas, Decernis LLC, tells Food Quality & Safety.
The geographic source of the adulteration is thus far unknown, but speculation centers on Turkey and India, the latter producing three-quarters of the world’s cumin supply. Higher-than-normal temperatures there have decimated the current cumin crop, with yields expected to be 40 percent to 50 percent less than those of past harvests. Prices have skyrocketed as a result. Dr. Acheson and others believe that suppliers there have added ground peanut shells and almond husks to “bulk up” ground cumin. “Adding just 1 percent peanut shells at zero cost is essentially a profit of $350 to $400 on a sale of 10 tons of ground cumin,” Dr. Acheson says. “Not a bad margin at zero cost for the grinder to put in their pocket.”
Recent laboratory testing of cumin samples has found a range of contamination. Tests performed by Neogen Corp. found contamination levels ranging from zero to 4.6 parts per million (ppm) total peanut to more than 5,000 ppm, or 0.5 percent, says Tony Lupo, director of technical services. Other labs have found even higher levels. “When they back calculate the peanut content in the cumin itself based on the inclusion rate in the recipe, it can be concluded that the cumin contained greater than 100,000 ppm or 10 percent,” Lupo tells Food Quality & Safety magazine. “Such levels, even when diluted in finished foods, are still well above published reference doses for many peanut allergic individuals.”
“Cumin is very commonly added to foods,” says Cary Sennett, MD, PhD, president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. There is no requirement that cumin or other spices be specifically identified on product labels. “Exposure to even a trace amount of peanut can be life-threatening to those who are allergic,” Sennett said in a statement.
The FDA has received eight reports from peanut-allergic consumers who reported mild to potentially severe symptoms after eating foods that contain the affected cumin, says agency spokesman Noah J. Bartolucci. But because the information is self-reported, FDA is unable to vouch for its accuracy or completeness. Nevertheless, “the current recall is the largest recall of an allergen in spice,” Bartolucci tells Food Quality & Safety magazine. FDA issued a consumer advisory in February cautioning people with peanut allergy to consider avoiding products containing ground cumin or cumin powder.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.