1. What happened?
Testing was conducted by the Australian consumer group Choice, mirroring tests conducted in the UK and published by the UK Consumer Group Which? in 2015. A selection of packs of dried oregano were purchased from supermarkets (grocery stores), delis (specialty food stores) and grocers (produce stores) in three cities in Australia and a single sample of each was tested. Seven of the twelve samples, over fifty percent, were found to be inauthentic, with the inauthentic samples containing between 10% and 90% of ingredients other than oregano, including olive leaves and sumac leaves.
2. Why test oregano?
Herbs and spices are one of the rock-stars of food fraud; their complex cross-border supply chains, high price per kilogram and the fact that they are often sold in powder or particulate forms make them prime targets for adulteration, dilution and substitution with cheaper materials.
Why oregano in particular? Professor Elliott, Director of the Institute for Global Food Security, and an international authority on food fraud conducted testing on oregano in the UK in 2015, the results of which were published by the UK Consumer group Which?. It is possible that Prof Elliott used rapid evaporative ionization mass spectrometry (REIMS), a test method recently made available by Waters Corporation, although Which did not disclose the test method. REIMS makes use of a rapid sampling method that produces vapour which is analysed using time of flight mass spectrometry. Sophisticated software compares molecular markers in the resulting spectrum with those in known materials in a database, allowing a sample to be quickly identified as belonging to a particular product type or not. The method has huge potential for testing food authenticity, with one of the advantages being that unlike other tests for adulteration there is no need to specify which adulterants to seek. A downside is that many hundreds or thousands of tests must be performed and compared to traditional analytical methods to create a database before the method can be used with confidence to determine the authenticity of any given material.
Professor Elliott recently revealed that Waters Corporation and Queens University, Belfast worked together to build a database of oregano samples (Elliott, C. (2016) Addressing complex and critical food integrity issues using the latest analytical technologies). This means that oregano is one of the few materials that can currently benefit from accurate authenticity testing using the REIMS method.
3. Are the results unexpected?
Global food fraud commentators attribute the presence of significant concentrations of adulterants or diluents in dried herbs to economically motivated food fraud in most cases, as opposed to seafood mislabelling which sometimes occurs due to unintentional errors in species identification. Food fraud is estimated to cost the United Kingdom one billion pounds each year. It is thought to be very common among some food types, including herbs and spices.
4. Who is responsible?
It is highly unlikely that any of the brand owners named in the Choice report were aware that they were selling adulterated herbs. Most if not all of the brands included the Australian testing would have been sourced and packed under well-controlled systems that include vendor approval processes, formal specifications for incoming materials (such as bulk herbs) as well as certificates of analysis and declarations of conformity to specification. The fraudulent tampering probably occurred further up the supply chain during drying, bulk packing, shipping or storage. Interestingly, all seven adulterated samples contained olive leaves and two contained sumac leaves. It is possible that tampering occurred in two different points within the supply chain for some products; perhaps one fraudster added olive leaves to bulk lots of the herb at a location close to the oregano growing area and sumac leaves were added by someone else at a later date.
5. What are the legal and financial ramifications?
The sale of misrepresented products is a breach of Australian consumer law and ignorance cannot be used as a defense. The incidences were investigated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), an independent authority of the Australian government. One company was fined a substantial sum for selling product that contained only 50% oregano leaves. It is likely that other businesses that had been supplied with inauthentic herbs sought financial redress from their suppliers, either through purchasing contract penalties or through private legal action.
When a food business chooses to voluntarily recall or withdraw their products from the marketplace they may try to claim the costs against their business insurance. Insurance companies will seek to recover their costs from further up the food supply chain and this may have an impact on premiums in coming years.
6. What should food businesses do?
No food business is immune from economically motivated food fraud and preventing food fraud from affecting a business is a multi-functional task that should involve personnel from purchasing, finance and legal departments as well as food safety and quality personnel. In the short term however, there are some things that can be done by food safety and quality personnel to help prevent, deter and detect food fraud without a lot of investment from other parts of a food business:
- Update your purchasing specifications to include authenticity requirements.
- Review your vendor approvals systems and revise questionnaires and requirements if required. Consider implementing more stringent requirements for those suppliers that provide vulnerable materials.
- Request certificates of analysis (CofA) from suppliers of vulnerable materials
- Begin a testing regime for vulnerable materials
- Investigate the costs and benefits of supply chain audits, including whether ad-hoc, one-off visits to certain suppliers might be worthwhile
- Request tamper-evident packaging and bulk container tamper seals for vulnerable raw materials
- Ask suppliers of vulnerable materials to undertake a mass balance exercise at their facility or further upstream in the supply chain.
- Make a business case for switching suppliers of materials that prove to be consistently problematic and present it to your purchasing department.
Want to learn more about food fraud mitigation in the spice industry? This article in Food Safety Magazine provides an excellent insight.