Around one in five pepper shakers sold in European supermarkets contain more than just ground pepper.
These results follow a large-scale investigation by the European Commission in which fraudulent practices in the marketing of various herbs and spices were investigated. Samples from shakers sold across Europe were analysed in the European Commission's Joint Research Centre to find out exactly what they contain. The Research Centre specialises in the analysis of food samples.
The investigation aimed to identify potentially illegal practices in the marketing of herbs and spices. Fraud of this kind has already been the subject of a number of international reports in recent years but often goes undetected.
"The advantage of this research is that we have analysed all samples (a total of just under 2,000) in the same way and that there is less margin for error," said Guy Van den Eede, director of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC). The oregano chain turned out to be the most vulnerable, with 48% of the controlled samples being deemed impure.
This was followed by pepper, with 17% of the European samples not being pure. 70 of the 421 samples from all over Europe may have been supplemented with undeclared plant material. Pepper is the spice that is most commonly imported into Europe and is used for meals across the continent. In some cases, as well as other plant material, as much as six grams of sand per 100 grams of pepper was found.
"Sand is neutral and will not change the taste," explained Van Den Eede. Ground pepper is easy to manipulate because it is such a predominant flavour in itself that it may drown out other flavours.
According to Belgian regulations, it is forbidden to sell black pepper with more than 7% mineral substances; more than 2% sand; less than 6% non-volatile etheric extract; or with more than 17% crude cellulose. For white pepper, it is forbidden to sell it if it contains more than 4% mineral substances; more than 1% sand; or less than 6% non-volatile etheric extract.
Yet for pepper, these impurities don't present an immediate health concern: "The amount of pepper we consume is particularly low," explained Van den Eede. "But we shouldn't take this lightly. People pay for a premium product; they are then entitled to an honest product."
Quality control, at home and in the factory
Sometimes such an impure mix can be dangerous. For example, a mixture was analysed in the laboratory to which rapeseed was added, a plant that can provoke an allergic reaction in some people. "That is potentially harmful to health," said Van den Eede. Mustard seeds, which have sometimes been recovered, are also an allergen.
To limit coming to harm, Van den Eede recommends buying ball pepper to grind yourself: "The chance that there is something else in there is relatively small."
It is hoped that the large-scale European study will alert producers that they must be careful with the quality control of their products: "Companies themselves must ensure that what they receive is in good faith and must control every step of the production chain... In some cases these are very long production chains with many intermediaries."