Can You Pass the Sawdust Please?

Center for the Global Food Value Chain Blog

An Indian kitchen is incomplete without an expansive spice rack. Turmeric, red chili powder, ground spices are the essence of Indian cooking. I often wonder about the authenticity of my spices. Is the saffron marigold? Are the cloves just dried up woodchips? I try not to think about my olive oil. After all, I paid top dollar for it and had the store manage vouch for its authenticity. But lately, I can’t shake this nagging feeling that I’m buying “fake” food!

I have a good reason to be concerned. I ran a query on turmeric adulteration in the U.S. Pharmacopeia database and noted 28 cases of adulteration with adulterants ranging from Sudan dyes, lead, lead chromate, starch, matanil yellow dye, yellow clay, chalk powder, color additives, sawdust, and spice powder from non-authentic botanical/varietal origins, etc. For the curious folks out there, I’ve included the link to the food fraud database below for you to do your own detective work around your favorite foods.

Intentional adulteration of food for economic gains is a very real and very big problem for the U.S. government and its consumers. The Food and Drug Administration’s proposed working definition of EMA (Economically Motivated Adulteration) is: the fraudulent, intentional substitution, or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production, i.e., for economic gain. To understand the scope of this problem, let’s consider the cost of the infamous 2008 melamine adulteration that has been estimated at $10 Billion U.S. dollars.

The scariest part of food adulteration is the unknown and unpredictable nature of the crime. The adulteration can be introduced at any point along the global food value chain, making it extremely hard to pin-point the originating source. The profile of the adulterant (type, quantity, health impact, etc.) is dynamic, making it hard to profile and predict the impact the adulteration may have on people’s health. Considering the scope of economic gains at stake, one cannot wish this problem away. Food adulteration is a very old practice. It has persisted over centuries across continents and now it’s gotten a lot more sophisticated and complex.

Increasing consumer awareness about economically adulterated food and public pressure to demand safe and authentic foods is a start. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) takes a hard stance against food fraud and is working on strengthening oversight and control to maintain the safety and integrity of food being raised, imported, and sold in the U.S. And finally, the scandal averse corporations are getting involved to test the products being sold under their brand are authentic and not a fakester! 

The U.S. is committed to keeping our food safe, but it’s a steep challenge. In the meantime, I guess I will have to wonder if the pinch of turmeric in my curry is the golden spice or perhaps a bit of yellow sawdust or clay or starch or perhaps lead.

USP Food Fraud Database
Food fraud – a greater public health risk than traditional safety threats?
'Food and Drug Administration: Better Coordination Could Enhance Efforts to Address Economic Adulteration and Protect the Public Health', November 23, 2011.
Consumer product fraud—how to stop it now
Economically Motivated Adulteration: Is Your Brand At Risk?
Food Defense Implications of the Food Safety Modernization Act 

Debarati Bhattacharya
Manager, Business Risk, Food Safety
Deloitte & Touche LLP