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Illegal Dyes in Spices


On the 9th of May 2003, France sent information through the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), relating to the discovery of the dye Sudan Red I in dried chilli products originating from India.

Sudan Red I – CAS no. 842-07-9, is an azo compound and is not approved for food use within the EU/UK.  It is more commonly found in industrial manufactured products such as petrol, floor wax, shoe polish and solvents.  Its addition was most likely to improve the appearance of ground chilli powder – a brighter red appearance giving the impression of a better and  fresher quality product.

Sudan Red I along with Sudan Red II, Sudan Red III and Scarlet Red (Sudan Red IV) are also believed to be mammalian carcinogens with no Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) determined for humans. A report by the International Agency for the Research on Cancer (IARC) states a link to tumours of the liver following the subcutaneous administration to laboratory mice and as a result are consequently classified as category 3 carcinogens.

The progressive and continued escalation of issues concerning contamination of dried capsicum spice materials since the original incident led to the implementation and subsequent revisions of emergency regulatory controls.

Legislation and Regulatory Control

On 20 June 2003, the European Commission adopted a decision that prohibited all imports of hot chilli and hot chilli products of the genus Capsicum, dried and crushed or ground, for human consumption, falling within CN code 0904 2090, into  EU Member States, unless accompanied by a report on the results of official sampling and analysis, demonstrating that the consignment does not contain Sudan I. This was introduced into UK law as The Food (Hot Chilli and Hot Chilli Products) (Emergency Control) (England) regulations 2003 and EU Commission Decision 2003/460/EC).

As of the 27th January 2004 the aforementioned Statutory Instrument was amended by The Food (Hot Chilli and Hot Chilli Products) (Emergency Control) (England) (Amendment) regulations 2004 which takes into account an extension to the original EC decision (ref: EC Commission Decision 2004/92/EC).  This revision added Curry powder within code CN 091050 to the original list of materials defined under the legislation.  The new Decision also amended conditions of import of the defined materials by providing that imports now be prohibited unless accompanied by an analytical report, stating that they have been tested and found to be free from not only Sudan I but also Sudan II, III and Scarlet Red Sudan IV.

Decision 2004/92/EC was extended as of 23rd May 2005 to include Curcuma (Turmeric), defined as ‘Curcuma dried and crushed or ground within CN code 0910 30, in whatever form, intended for human consumption’ (ref: Commission Decision 2005/402/EC).

Which Spices Are Affected?

The aforementioned EC/UK legislation identifies the following Spice commodities as requiring emergency control measures:

‘Chilli’, fruits of the genus Capsicum, dried and crushed or ground within CN Code 09 04 2090, e.g.:
i) Crushed/Minced Chillies
ii) Ground Chilli powder
iii) Ground Cayenne Pepper
iv) Paprika Powder

‘Curcuma’, curcuma dried and crushed or ground within CN Code 0910 30, e.g.:
i) Turmeric – Whole/Kibbled/Ground

‘Chilli products’, curry powder, within CN Code 0910 50, e.g.:
i) Compound ingredient products containing Capsicum and/or Curcuma.

Analysis and Control – Positive Release

Scientific analysis has proven essential for detecting the presence of adulterated spice commodities and products thereof.

Initially, High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) was used to detect down to low parts per million (ppm) with the first analytical screen concerning Sudan Red’s I-IV. This has changed significantly since the early days of the issue with most Laboratories and Scientific Services now employing Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (LCMC/MS) to detect down to parts per billion (ppb) with the range of dye’s included in the screen now extended considerably to incorporate additional scares that have taken place, e.g. para red and covering a considerable amount of potential illegal food dye adulterants.

From the beginning of the issue, Gerald McDonald & Co Ltd has taken a very firm stance based on a positive release system. The aforementioned spices deemed ‘at risk’ are quarantined on delivery, sampled and analysed by a UKAS accredited method/Laboratory for over 20 different illegal food dyes.

Only once a satisfactory report is achieved is the product released from its quarantine status and made available for sale or internal processing.  This pro-active approach has proven very effective as Gerald McDonald & Co Ltd have avoided any involvement with any of the related recalls or scares that have taken place.