Spice Traceability – A Complex Food Chain

Herbs and Condiments that flavor your food, are they authentic?

Spice Traceability - A Complex Food Chain

Spice can be called the most traveled ingredient in the last century. From the popularity of Italian dried herbs like oregano in the Asian subcontinent to the immense demand for Asian species like AllSpice, cinnamon, curcumin, pepper, and cumin in the US, UK, Canada, and Europe – the spice has blurred all borders.

Growing fast-food culture, the popularity of ethnic cuisines, growing awareness of the health benefits of spices has made it one of the highest traded food products across the world. Consumers pick their jars of oregano or mixed seasonings from the supermarkets without blinking an eye, they never wonder where these herbs come from – are they organic? Were they grown sustainably? Is the pepper consumed authentic and free from contamination? Increasing demand, fluctuating yields, climate change, and lack of transparency in the food chain have made it hard for consumers to judge the quality of their spices.

Food traceability in the spice food chain is important to establish that the spices that add flavor to your food are free from exploited labor, harmful pesticides, additives, and climate change effects.

The Life Cycle Of Spices

Spice Traceability - A Complex Food Chain

If you look at the spices in general, the life cycle must look quite simple as it has to be farmed, dried, and dispatched. Buying organic, native spice products from authentic firms should not be a cause for concern, but unfortunately, a lot is lurking beneath the surface.

Spices have a very complicated post-harvest process with multiple teams working on it during the entire cycle. Local teams perform a myriad of functions before it reaches a processing facility for grading, grinding, and final packaging.

These preliminary teams are employed by the farm owners and generally belong to the indigenous and native communities of that region. This makes ensuring ethical pay and sustainable trade practice in this cycle a huge challenge.

Also, companies that sell spices usually work with a group of farmers or FPOs to ensure they can achieve the market demand. Each farmer may use a different farming technique, pesticide usage process, and harvest process as per their own knowledge.

Companies usually have no or very little control over these practices and currently a breeding ground of haphazard techniques by small farmers to improve yield and sustain their businesses.

Such practices restrict consumers from understanding the true origin and manufacturing process of a product.

For example, Ceylon cinnamon, a popular spice across the world, takes a lot of time to be ready to be sent to the factory. Farmers cut down tender branches and spend hours stripping the core and fashioning them into thin strips. These strips are then left to dry for days before they can be ready for processing in the factory.

Similarly, the chili capital of the world, Guntur, has a collective of 1000+ farmers controlling more than 35000 hectares and is the largest exporter of chili in the world.

The companies that eventually export these high-quality products worldwide play little or no role in its processing except for grading and packaging. Hence, the regulation and accountability must trickle down to the small farmers here to make traceability meaningful.

Adulteration is Pretty Common

Adulteration is a huge problem in the botanicals, herbs industry, particularly for some popular spices like oregano, thyme – these are at higher risk of being adulterated with inferior ingredients. Usually, herb ingredients are relatively expensive and most of them have supply shortages due to poor harvest, dwindling resources, and weather disruptions.

However, The American Botanical Council (ABC) who authors Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletins (BAPB) and Lab Guidance Documents, have described some of the most ordinary ways a particular herb is adulterated and the vital tests to ensure that the herb is pure.

Consumers are demanding quality, identity proven, transparent, sustainable herbal supplements but they are not usually looking at the spice mix they pick from the retail shelf for the pasta or seasonings for their pizza’s.

For instance, in the botanical supplements space, a herbs traceability platform, ‘MeetYourHerbs” have been launched by Gaia Herbs. “Customers can enter the ID number located on the back of any Gaia Herbs product to learn where each ingredient comes from, how the herbs were grown, harvested, and extracted, and the tests the product underwent to validate its purity, integrity, and potency,” quotes Stacey Gillespie, Brand Director at Gaia Herbs. “We believe that everyone should know the life story of the herbs that they take”, she adds further.

Third-party Spice Testing

Spices cannot be heated and dried like other herbs, this is in order to maintain their color, texture and flavor. Hence, it is obligatory to test the quality of spices at a certified spice testing laboratory service. Traditionally spices and condiments have been tested for percentage of :

● Moisture

● Acid insoluble ash

● Non-volatile Ether extract

● Scoville Index

● Cadmium

● Lead

● Coal tar dyes

● Arsenic

● IPM

● Chemical applications

● Chemical Residue

● PHI

A detailed third-party testing reports of the samples of spices indicate that these spices are fit for consumption and testing ensures to cover any health hazards, allergy and food poisoning due to any contaminants or adulterants.

These herbs are typically bought by food companies, spice producers and botanical supplement companies and are vetted by certain parameters before procuring from farmers. This information and control is necessary before grading, processing and ultimately impacting the final quality of spices in the supermarkets. The quality control systems for herbs enable the efficiency in entire production, processing and export operations for spice manufacturers.

Role of Food Companies to Ensure Traceability in Spices – A Farm To Bottle Approach

Spice trade is a billion-dollar industry and is set to grow as the world sets its heart on exploring different cuisines. In such cases, it is the onus of the food exporters and processing companies to ensure

1. Traceability from farm to bottle by empowering local farmers and communities with technology and scientific solutions.

2. Sustainability and contamination-free product supply by working with ground level farmers for the application of innovative farming techniques.

3. Authenticity in product range by working with government organizations and implementing stronger legislation in labeling, quality control, and traceability requirements.

Employing technology to ensure traceability in the spice supply chain will also incentivize small businesses and other market players to maintain quality in all products.

Computerized record-keeping right from the farm level and using farming technologies to optimize yields without extensive use of chemicals and pesticides are some of the measures food companies are implementing worldwide to ensure compliance to food safety standards.

Olam Spices is working with large-scale farmers, and implementing a sustainable sourcing program, AtSource. Using AtSource, customers are now able to track the environmental and social impact of their produce.

The program has helped the farmers to receive training on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), covering everything from crop rotation and correct land preparation to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and irrigation, to reduce the environmental footprint and increase the productivity of their crop through improved farming practices.

Using Agritech, they are now tracking fertilizer use, water and carbon footprint to labour practices and financial support.

Likewise, food companies have invested heavily in ag-tech start-ups and new technologies to shape the future of the industry and to incorporate regenerative practices on farms for spices.

Spice – Traceability Technologies

Spice Traceability - A Complex Food Chain

Some of the popular technologies employed by the food companies and manufacturers to ensure farm to bottle traceability in spices include

1. Geo-spatial tagging of crops to ensure traceability and accountability.

2. Implementing crop monitoring systems with alerts for pest infestations and other contaminants.

3. Farm management technologies to trace the crop from farms to packaging centers.

4. Quality monitoring systems at every stage using biosensors.

To meet the growing needs of small, medium and large scale spice growers SourceTrace is providing spice traceability right from farm-to-table, enabling the rural farmers and overcoming the traditional quality control using TraceNext, a food safety technology appropriate for spot quality testing of spices and much more.

With AI-based rapid quality testing in the field combined with blockchain-powered traceability, food safety and trade is enhanced. The direct benefits for food companies and producers are:

1. Meeting legal and compliance norms

2. Instant quality testing on trade and safety parameters

3. Instant trade decisions without delays and dependencies

4. Blockchain and Fair-Trade practices in supply chains

The data-based agriculture and information stored for spices over a period of time also help farmers and food companies to understand the farming techniques, weather behavior, and pest cycles in detail to bring efficiency in operations.

New US FDA traceability rules for dried spices

Keeping in mind the current pandemic and growing contaminants in the food industry, the US FDA has proposed an additional traceability requirement for all food manufacturers with the exclusion of some dried spices. Some varieties of peppers and herbs like parsley, cilantro are still included in the FTL (Food Traceability List).

The new rule aims to curb contaminants and promote safe products in the supply chain by requiring manufacturers, receivers and processing companies to maintain records throughout the cycle.

The dried spice industry can take its cue from this new regulation and use this to incentivize small farmers and local communities to extend the traceability initiatives to the dried spice and herbs processes as well.

Final thoughts…

Spices have become a staple in diets across the world. However, spices originate from very niche corners in the Asian and European regions. To ensure standardization, authenticity, and quality in this growing market, the US, UK, and European governments have implemented strict traceability laws.

To make traceability a reality in the spice supply chain, the initiatives have to truly begin at the farm level with cooperating from capitalist manufacturing units.

Do you process, sell, label spice products? Are you looking to gain an edge for your products in this market? Ensuring food traceability initiatives to enable your consumer to trace products back to the farm is a necessity today.

Contact us for comprehensive, customized, and innovative traceability solutions for your spice, herbs, condiments and more.

SourceTrace's software solutions have been deployed across 32 countries and 4 continents already. We are on a mission to make agriculture and food systems more sustainable. Get in touch and we will extend our expertise and commitment to you.


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About SourceTrace

SourceTrace is a SaaS (Software As A Service) company that focuses on sustainable agriculture and empowerment of farmers.

SourceTrace's advanced technology platform DATAGREEN provides comprehensive solutions to manage all aspects of the agricultural value chain.

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