SPAIN – The Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN) together with the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and Europol have uncovered a saffron fraud operation in Spain that used ingredients from China.

The Guardia Civil, the oldest law enforcement agency in Spain, found a group was selling modified gardenia extract from China as saffron across Spain. The harvest price of saffron is 10 times more than gardenia extract.

Operation Garden saw 11 people arrested and three companies investigated for crimes against public health and fraud. The probe was carried out in Malaga, Barcelona, Alicante, Granada and Almeria.

The adulterated product managed to pass detection techniques used in past years as the gang reduced the concentration of the molecule that differentiates saffron from gardenia.

According to authorities, the fraud led to an estimated profit of €3 million (US $3.3 million) for the main company investigated. This is based on product marketing data from China since 2013.

More than 2,000-kilograms of allegedly adulterated saffron valued at €750,000 (US$ 818,000) was seized and withdrawn from the market.

Gardenia has a similar color to saffron but can be intensively harvested, while saffron must be done manually, as it is delicate. This leads to the harvest price of saffron being 10 times higher.

Gardenia is not considered a food in the European Union so importers didn’t have to meet any safety standards.

Gardenia extracts were imported from a Chinese factory that specialized in producing dyes. The people investigated in Spain changed the labels and technical and customs documentation to pass it off as saffron.

Once the product was in Spain, it was stored and handled according to customer requirements, and introduced to the market through large distribution chains, being consumed by people who bought it thinking it was saffron.

Olive oil fraud

Meanwhile, Spanish officials have issued a warning related to the processing, bottling and distribution of virgin and extra virgin olive oil.

AESAN said it was informed about the marketing of 10 products of different brands and sizes that are considered unsafe because of their origin and due to the lack of reliable traceability.

The adulterated brands include Wafa virgin olive oil, Maakoul olive oil, Riad Al Andalus virgin olive oil, Maysae, virgin olive oil in 5-liter containers with no branding, La Noria extra virgin olive oil, Zannouti 31 31 extra virgin olive oil, Virgen de la Salud virgin and extra virgin oil and Rahouyi extra virgin olive oil.

Official sampling of olive oil, carried out as part an operation to combat fraud revealed the presence of vegetable oils, as reported by Food Safety News.

Distribution of the products has been mostly in the region of Murcia but also Catalonia, the Basque Country and Valencia. Consumers have been advised to avoid consuming the products but instead return them to the point of sale.

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