Herbs and spices. Hard to recognize, easy to counterfeit

29 Oct, 2020

The term “spices” comes from the Latin “species” which indicates a special type of valuable goods that differs from ordinary ones. Due to their exotic characteristics and low availability, in mediaeval times the term gradually came to indicate the vegetable substances of oriental origin mainly used for cooking purposes. Apart from the religious valence and the therapeutic power attributed to them in the past, because of their high commercial value, spices were considered a social marker. To give an example, when Alaric, king of the Visigoths, looted the city of Rome in 410 BC, in addition to gold and silver, he demanded 5,000 pounds of pepper!

If we think about the price of spices nowadays, the previous anecdote makes us smile. As a matter of fact, thanks to the advances in technology, agriculture and transportations, today a small pack of peppercorns bought in a supermarket does not cost more than few euros. However, this is also due to the fact that we usually buy and use spices in very small amounts.

If you have ever had the chance to look at retail prices per kilo, you would have never thought of Alaric as a fool, even in modern times. In Italy, a 30 grams pack of ground black pepper, which is the least valuable of its category, is sold on average for 2 euros, making its price per kilo reach almost 70 euros. This is still few if we compare it with the price of rosemary and sage, ranging from 100 to 250 euros per kilo. While we exceed the price of silver if we look at the value of saffron, which is sold on average from 6 to 10 euros per single gram.

For some time now, the high-end value of spices has been attracting the attention of fraudsters, as they have spotted in this market a great opportunity for easy profits. Indeed, the minced or powdered state in which this category of products is sold, summed with the minimal quantity used for seasoning, makes it very difficult for an adulteration to be detected, both for customers and for public authorities.

In January 2017, the Chinese police busted several underground producers that were distributing counterfeit versions of products like soy sauce and spice mix. The fakes were being made in the industrial district of Tianjin, where it has been estimated that around 50 family-run factories had been making fake condiments and seasonings for almost a decade, producing up to 100 million yuan ($14 million) of them every year. (1)

A study published in 2019 by the magazine Frontiers in Pharmacology, analyzed the authenticity of almost 6,000 herbal products sold across 37 countries using DNA testing. 27% of them, due to the presence of contaminants, substitutes and filler species, did not contain what was claimed on the label. (2) Another recent study investigating on the genuineness of sage in UK, through lab techniques such as spectroscopy and chemometric modeling, discovered that a quarter of the sampled products were heavily adulterated with other tree leaves. (3)

Frauds like the ones cited above, negatively impact the lawful companies and the whole food market, compromising producers’ revenues and reputation and triggering the loss of consumers’ trust. Additionally, apart from misleading the end-users and causing economic damages, these practices put in danger the health of consumers. Mislabeling of herbal products and species, in fact, represent a serious threat in case of intolerances and allergies. Not to mention that counterfeit products such as spices, besides adulterant different varieties, were reported to contain harmful contaminants such as microbes, fungi, mycotoxins, pesticides and toxic heavy metals. (4)

A solution to overcome this problem would be the establishment of a secure and fully tracked supply chain, from the producer till the final customer. The technology developed by Authena can implement it, registering and securing all information via blockchain. Through an NFC tag applied to each single product, the consumer would be able to verify its provenience and authenticity autonomously and instantaneously, with just a tap of the smartphone. Additionally, whenever the pack is jar-like, made of glass or of rigid plastic, the tag has also the ability to prevent fraudulent re-filling practices as it is able to detect the open/closed status of the cap. The adoption of this technological solution would have a positive impact both for consumers and for producers. The first ones would have genuineness guaranteed while the last would be able to differentiate from competitors, increase brand loyalty and collect detailed user data and insights from the market.

Alessandro Tacconelli