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Food fraud: Finnish Customs seize 950 kg of tainted, carcinogenic spices

Finnish Customs has seized nearly one tonne of spices which were incorrectly labelled or contained dangerous ingredients, according to Helsingin Sanomat. The agency is taking part in the joint Europol-Interpol operation Opson VI, an international endeavour which targets counterfeit and substandard food products, and the organised crime networks behind the trade.

Spice market in Mumbai, India. File photo. Image: Divyakant Solanki / EPA

Finnish Customs has seized some 950.5 kg of imported turmeric, curry and chilli because the spices were in breach of food safety regulations, Finland's biggest daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reports.

Officials uncovered chilli and turmeric that were found to contain the food colouring agent Sudan, which is a known carcinogenic and banned for use in food. They were found at a small Asian grocery store in Helsinki, but the owners of the shop had not imported the banned spices themselves.

The responsible importing firm was tracked down and the spices were removed from store shelves. In order to import to the EU spices must include a certificate confirming they do not contain Sudan I,II,III and IV, Petri Lounatmaa, Finnish Customs' Head of Analysis and Intelligence told Yle.

Another seized product was found to have erroneously been marked as organic, the agency said.

Some of the goods were improperly labelled with, for example, incomplete ingredient lists, which can be potentially dangerous to people with allergies.

Fake foods market big business

Because there's big money to be made, the fake spice market is growing. The raid revealed one incident in which an unscrupulous spice merchant added crushed brick to bags of chilli powder to increase their weight.

By far the most counterfeited product around the world is alcohol, according to Europol-Interpol.  Another growing trend is the trade of bogus bottled mineral water, the agency said.

This year marks the fourth time that Finland is participating in the the Opson VI fake food sting organised by Europol-Interpol. This year officials inspected goods at some 50,000 sites across Europe in shops, airports, ports and warehouses.

During the operation, Finnish customs and local officials tested some 16 shipments or packages and took a total of 21 samples. The spices were tested to examine the types of dyes used, radioactive content and if the contents matched with ingredient lists on packaging.

Across Europe, the OPSON VI operation resulted in the seizure of 9,800 tonnes, over 26.4 million litres, and 13 million units worth an estimated 230 million euros of potentially harmful food and beverages such as alcohol, mineral water, seasoning cubes, seafood and olive oil, as well as luxury goods like caviar.

A final and detailed report on the results of the operation is expected to be published in the next months.