Is your sage even pure sage? That's the question raised by researchers at Queen's University Belfast's Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) after discovering more than a quarter of samples of the popular were adulterated, some by as much as 58%.
The research team, headed by IGFS founder Professor Chris Elliott OBE, has previously disclosed the high degree of fraud in oregano supplies. The 2015 research, carried out in conjunction with the consumer organization Which?, discovered that about one in four samples contained non-oregano ingredients that triggered shockwaves in the herb and spice industry. A number of food standards authorities around the world followed up on the results, resulting in at least one prosecution.
"I am sad to confirm that once again we have identified a major problem linked to the supply chains associated with supplies of herbs and spices to the UK consumer," Prof Elliott commented. "Testing has shown that just over 25% of all Sage samples analyzed were heavily adulterated.
In this latest analysis, 19 samples of sage were investigated at IGFS in Belfast between August and September 2020. The samples were obtained from large online retailers; many of the well-known UK supermarkets; and smaller, local shops such as ethnic grocery stores.
For certain customers, what may be comforting is that none of the brands marketed by the major UK grocery stores have been proven to be fake. Just some sage sold by online vendors and smaller independents with olive leaves and/or leaves from other trees is found to have been bulked out. Although it is not believed that the leaves detected are toxic, food fraud still holds the potential for risks to food safety and public health.
Another positive news is that, since 2015, adulteration of oregano has reportedly declined dramatically. At IGFS in Summer 2020, a total of 20 oregano samples were checked alongside sage. Just one example of oregano adulteration, a five-fold decline, was found in the 2020 study.
The findings of this latest snapshot analysis were discussed with the Food Industry Intelligence Network; the National Food Crime Unit; and the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit, with a potential for future follow-up. As a direct result of the 2014 Elliott Report, an investigative analysis led by Prof Chris Elliott into the credibility of the UK food industry after the horsemeat scandal, all of these organizations have been established.
Authorities are now looking to correct the unlawful act of sage suppliers.