Issues of traceability loomed large a couple of weeks ago at the judging for the FreeFrom Food Awards. Whatever about manufacturing in a dedicated nut/dairy/gluten-free factory, does a ‘freefrom’ manufacture also need to know (and declare) the contamination risks that might attach to every ingredient in their product? Would the contamination of one ingredient, which accounts for only a small fraction of the final product, really present a risk to an allergic consumer?
We could have been rehearsing for this week’s cumin/paprika/almond furore!
For those of you who have only caught the headlines, the problem first surfaced last autumn in Canada when Canadian Food Inspection Agency ran a random test on a taco product and found almond in the cumin they had used. This sparked an investigation in the US which discovered peanut proteins in cumin sold by a company called Reily Foods – an investigation that rapidly escalated as Reily Foods and already sold its cumin on to 38 customers who, in turn had sold it further on down the chain. Since cumin is an extremely popular spice used in a very wide range of curry-type products, this resulted in a positive avalanche of food recalls across the US.
In the UK the alarm was only raised this month when the Food Standard’s Agency’s random sampling programme first found almond traces in cumin and then, while searching for it in cumin, in paprika. The almond used is not thought to be nuts as such but the nut shells which can be ground and used as a cumin substitute. While the shells are not themselves allergenic, there is a strong possibility that nut pieces may stick to them. There is also a strong possibility that peanuts could be used in the same way.
Does this present a danger to nut/peanut allergics? Well, the FSA is stressing that the amounts are very small and that there have not, so far at least, been any reports of allergic reactions. However, the general advice consensus is that almond and peanut allergics should avoid any foods likely to contain either cumin or paprika, at least for the moment. The government is, however, treating it extremely seriously and the Food Crime Unit, set up after the Horsegate scandal last year, are already on the case.
But why should cumin and paprika suppliers suddenly want to substitute almond or peanut shells for the real thing? Well, as far as cumin is concerned there is good reason. Nearly 75% of the world’s supply of cumin comes from Indian state of Gujarat which, last year, had a heatwave resulting in a disastrous cumin harvest producing only half of the usual yield. As a result the price has shot up from 1,800 rupees for 20 kilos in December to 2,800 in February and it is still rising. Certainly good enough reason for unscrupulous merchants to slip in some less expensive ingredients in to bulk out the the now highly priced cumin.
The problem is that the spice trade is complex and the supply chain lengthy and often murky. So, at what point in the cumin’s journey from Gujarat to the UK factory, via up to ten different merchants and as many countries, someone decided to bulk it out with some crushed almond shells to try and mitigate the effect of the rapidly rising price, may be all but impossible to discover.
As to how the paprika became contaminated, who knows. But paprika is also widely grown in India – and although it has not suffered the catastrophe that hit cumin last year, ‘stretching’ it by adding a little ground almond or peanut shell may have seemed like a trick worth trying.
However, it does bring us back to the labelling issue for all products, but especially for ‘freefrom’ ones. Can you afford to flag up any of your products as genuinely ‘freefrom’ unless you are 100% sure of all of those ingredients? But that could mean that you could never use any ingredient which came from outside the UK/EU and possibly the US where you could be absolutely sure of total transparency and traceability. What of all those wonderful Middle Eastern, South American, Indian or Far Eastern ingredients (including spices) which give such interest and add so many nutritional benefits to our food? Is there really any chance that one could reliably trace all of them through what is very often a long and often tortuous supply chain?
Well, let us not get too depressed. If the Fair Trade Foundation can work directly with source suppliers maybe others can too, in which case traceability would become a far more reachable goal. But meanwhile this latest ‘foodgate’ does suggest that freefrom manufacturers have little option but to declare absolutely everything that they know (or don’t know) about their products – and that buyers of ‘freefrom’ foods have to take on the responsibility of deciding on the level of risk they are prepared to take.