Jalapeno peppers may be hot but they have nothing on the heat emanating from the spice world following Tesco’s decision to ban own label suppliers from using spice companies that do not comply with its new global accreditation scheme (The Grocer June 4, p4).
The retailer’s move has provoked fury within the spice industry, not least because affected companies say they already follow all UK and EU legal requirements and have all the certificates of accreditation needed.
And then there is the cost. The initiative requires traceability back to first processing, including country of origin, for capsicums (paprika, chilli and cayenne pepper) and turmeric for use in Tesco brand products. It also includes compound ingredients that include these spices, such as blends, flavourings, bouillon, sauces and pastes. Suppliers will have to pay £150 to Tesco’s chosen laboratory LawLabs for provisional recognition on its Valid IT database followed by an annual £650 for verification.
But is the move really so sinister? On the face of it, it’s difficult to attack Tesco’s rationale for wanting to take control of ingredients purchasing. After all, the initiative comes as the industry is still reeling from the effects of food safety scares such as Sudan 1 and Para Red. The UK’s largest retailer can put up a robust defence that it is acting in the interests of its shoppers. “This is obviously a big issue for our customers and we will do everything we can to reassure them,” says a Tesco spokeswoman.
Tesco adds that it is keen to help its primary suppliers tackle the challenge of managing what has been shown to be a very complex supply chain. “You should consider the suitability of a supplier who cannot share this basic information with you,” it says.
And it points out that it is already successfully controlling ingredients deriving from soya and maize to deliver its non-GM position to customers.
But telling suppliers they can only source from companies that appear on a new Tesco database appears to have opened a can of chilli peppers - not least because of the manner in which it has issued the diktat. A letter from Tesco technical and trading law director Liz Kynoch leaked to The Grocer warns that after June 17 any ingredient supplier without a provisional listing on Valid IT will not be used by Tesco.
There is no regulatory need for Tesco to take this step as EU law requires a ‘one-up one down’ approach to traceability. However, industry watchers are not surprised.
“There is no need for supermarkets to stipulate this but many companies are now taking a belt and braces approach,” says Ravi Randhawa, regulatory legal advisor at Wragge & Co. “Because of issues such as Sudan 1, we have more companies saying to us that they want contracts that require their suppliers to do more, even though they know who is supplying them and where their product is going. If there is any problem they have a comeback in contracted terms.”
Lawrence Hutter, traceability expert at Deloitte, says: “There is a general tendency for major retailers to go well beyond legislation. Tesco is telling its customers that its products have certain assurances.”
Tesco refutes any claims this is a case of the retailer exerting its power over suppliers. “That is absolutely not the case. We strive to do everything we can for customers. You wouldn’t expect us to stand still,” says the spokeswoman.
However, there has been some easing of its position. In the original documentation it set the limit of detection of Sudan 1 and Para Red at 0.1ppm, lower than the figure of 0.5-1ppm recommended last month by the Food Standards Agency (The Grocer, May 28, p4) Such a low detection level requires a form of testing called LCMS. The EU and FSA have not endorsed this yet, preferring to recommend the HPLC method until further pan-European research is finalised.
“We have concerns about LCMS because there can be variability between labs. You can get false positive results at low levels,” explains an FSA spokesman.
However, Tesco now says it will adhere to the 0.5ppm level and that it will be informing its suppliers of such. It also says it will be consulting more with the industry, something welcomed by Seasoning and Spice Association executive chairman Simon Cripps.
“We can see what Tesco is looking to achieve and some of our members commented on technical details at draft stage. But the SSA has not endorsed the final document. We are getting further clarification and hope to see further consultation,” he says.
While this initiative is limited to spice at the moment, other ingredients suppliers should watch out. Says Hutter: “I don’t expect it will remain as spices only - this is just the tip of the iceberg.”