The spice traders' tale

Observations on adulterated food

To my father and his brother, the Sudan 1 scandal, in which a toxic dye was found in chilli powder imported from India, came as no surprise. They have been spice traders, based in London, for more than 30 years. They import spices from around the world and sell them to local businesses, including those who supply the supermarkets.

Although of Indian origin themselves, they stopped importing spices from India more than 15 years ago. They got high-quality samples from suppliers but received sub-standard goods, which their customers eventually stopped buying. They asked another brother in India to check consignments, but the products were often switched just before they were shipped out. Once, British Customs officers found an 18-tonne consignment of "turmeric powder" to be nothing more than garam flour dyed yellow.

But it is not just unscrupulous suppliers who are to blame for sub-standard products. European demand for low primary-product prices more or less forces the Indian producers to cheat. My father and uncle say that producers will never turn down an order, because they desperately need western currency. But they cannot afford to send high-quality products for such low prices. So they adulterate their goods - by, for example, mixing them with inferior brands.

The dyeing is an old trick - but again, it's the western market that is largely to blame. In the 1980s, my uncle recalls, wholesalers refused red chilli powder because it was not "bright red". If the colour was "dull", they weren't interested, even if it was pure chilli. My father and uncle now import only whole spices, such as cardamoms and cloves, as these are more difficult to tamper with. They also import from family-run businesses in the Far East and central America that grow, as well as sell, their own products, making quality control both tighter and easier to maintain.

The message is that if western buyers demand lower prices from suppliers in the developing world, something has to give. You don't get something for nothing.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The Bling Bling List