News that traces of undeclared almonds and nuts have been found in ground cumin and products containing ground cumin – such as curries – has this week provoked fears of a new food scandal.
Substitution with undeclared nuts is indeed a chilling prospect. When not labelled correctly, nuts pose a potentially lethal threat to allergy sufferers, raising the prospect of a food scandal much more serious than Horsegate.
All the while, substituting nuts for cumin sounds like a rather absurd concept. So it’s worth being clear about what is being suggested here: we’re not talking about cumin being substituted as an ingredient as such, but rather being “cut” with nuts and nut-based waste products, such as peanut shells.
Cumin has a very distinctive taste, so couldn’t just be “substituted” for another ingredient in a dish without an obvious change in flavour profile. But if, say, your 1kg bulk bag of ground cumin contained just 80% cumin and had been stretched with 20% nuts, the different in taste may be rather more difficult to detect. That’s what experts fear may have happened with the cases that are currently being investigated.
Of course, it’s worth stressing the Food Standards Agency is still looking into the cases and says so far there’s no suggestion any of the recent cumin-related recalls could be linked.
Whatever the story behind those specific recalls may turn out to be, there’s very good reason to be concerned about cumin at the moment. As The Grocer reported earlier this year, cumin prices have been rising sharply recently following a poor harvest in India.
Where there are sudden, sharp price hikes in a given ingredient, the economic incentive for fraudsters rises markedly – that was one of the big lessons from Horsegate. ‘Don’t trust a deal that appears too good to be true,’ the message was.
For anyone buying cumin as an ingredient in dishes and food products, now’s the time to be asking some tough questions of your supply chain.