Did you know that most spices on your supermarket shelves are often stale and/or adulterated? While some may know about the adulteration that goes into the coriander, turmeric or red chilli powder we use in our kitchens, not many are aware of the extent of adulteration. (Image above of Meher Kairon, Founder of Fairer Foods, on the left.)
Dr Ipsita Mazumdar, a professor of biochemistry at Kolkata’s KPC Medical College and Hospital, has closely studied the effects of lead poisoning from traditionally consumed spices since 2014.
Testing samples of chilli powder, turmeric, garam masala and chaat masala found in branded packets and loose powders sold on Kolkata’s streets, she found lead in all of them.
According to a December 2020 report in The Guardian, “The cause, she found, was food colouring contaminated with compounds of lead. Lead chromate was added to the turmeric to brighten its golden colour and lead oxide gave the chilli powders a rich red hue. The other spices tested, including curry powders, garam and chaat masalas, had small amounts of lead but not at such high levels as the turmeric and chilli.”
Like lead chromate, Metanil yellow, a potent toxic chemical, is also used to add greater vibrancy to the colour of turmeric. It’s important to note that adulterants are added to spices for different purposes. To increase the bulk of spices for greater profit margins, adulterants like corn flour, saw dust, ground chalk, husk and even dehydrated horse dung are added.
The reason that most spices on supermarket shelves are of compromised quality is because the spice industry has traditionally operated on long and opaque supply chains.
It can take over two years for a spice to reach from soil to shelf, and it can change hands six or seven times along the way. As the spices move through these convoluted supply chains, passing through dusty godowns and unscrupulous traders, processors, wholesalers and manufacturers, they become increasingly stale and adulterated.
In order to tackle this issue, and address concerns around adulteration of spices, Fairer Foods, a young venture based out of Chandigarh, is bringing consumers freshly-harvested spices that are free of all additives. Their spices are sourced directly from farms and estates across India and Sri Lanka, and contain no food coloring, preservatives, fillers or anticaking agents.
Moreover, because of their direct sourcing model, they are also able to pay farmers a fair price for their produce. Meher Kairon, an entrepreneur who carries a Law degree from Cambridge University, launched her one-of-a-kind venture on 24 December 2020.
“We want to build the shortest and most transparent supply chain in the spice industry. In order to achieve our twin goals of preventing adulteration in our spices and paying farmers a fair price for their produce, we must work backwards and look at the process by which we are sourcing them. We firmly believe that to deliver a better product, we need to build a better, more efficient and equitable process,” she tells The Better India.
“On the face of it, the solution seems simple, but it’s very difficult to execute and build that supply chain. This is because it’s harder to connect with farmers and speak to them about quality control than it is to buy from a trader, who is more easily accessible. When we say it takes two years for a spice in India to reach from soil to shelf, that’s a conservative estimate. The process can often take longer,” she adds.
Two Years From Farm To Shelf
Having left India at 18, Meher completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago. She then went on to do her law degree at Cambridge University, following which she worked as a corporate lawyer in London for two years.
Meher knew she wanted to build her own business and in 2019, after having spent nearly a decade abroad, she decided it was time to come back. Instead of jumping head first into launching a business, she decided to ease her way into it. After spending some time with her parents in Chandigarh, she worked for a firm in Delhi before eventually switching to a Mumbai-based venture capital firm. Working there gave her a peek into the Indian startup ecosystem and what it took to run a venture in this country.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, like many others she too moved back to her hometown. Spending more time at home translated to longer hours in the kitchen.
“As a passionate home cook, I started spending more time in the kitchen during the course of last year’s lockdowns. In the kitchen, we were using these fresh spices like black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric and cloves that my parents had brought directly from spice farms in Kerala. Once these spices ran out, we reverted to packets from the nearby supermarket. I immediately noticed a difference between the spices my parents brought with them from the farms, and the ones from the supermarket. The discrepancy in flavour and quality got me curious about the ingredients we use, where they come from, and I started reading up on the spice industry. The more I researched, read articles and spoke to people in the industry, I realised that the product was compromised because the process was inequitable and inefficient. The spice industry has traditionally operated on these long supply chains, as a result of which spices are often stale and adulterated, and the farmers who grow them are not paid a fair price,” explains Meher.
From March to December 2020, Meher spent her time researching the spice industry and building the process from the ground up. So, how does the traditional spice supply chain work?
As she explains, “Hypothetically speaking, if turmeric is harvested in February 2020, it will move from the farm to the local mandi where it will lie for a while. This turmeric is then bought by a trader at an auction. That trader may keep the harvested turmeric for a couple of months until prices rise. He then sells it on to the processor who does the drying and grinding. The processor then sells it onto wholesalers, who might once again put it in storage for a few months until prices rise again. These players are essentially playing the commodity trading angle. From the wholesaler, the turmeric is sold on to the distributors, from where it travels to retailers like kirana stores and supermarkets.”
This entire process takes at least two years, which results in the turmeric growing stale. Moreover, with the turmeric changing hands so many times, it becomes difficult to pin down accountability, allowing for a lot of adulteration along the way. Name one major spice company who can tell you which specific area or farm the spice in a particular packet comes from. These major companies can’t because they’re buying from wholesalers who themselves are buying from a variety of traders, processors, different farms and so on.
For example, if you buy a packet of black pepper powder from the supermarket, it’ll be a mix of different varieties. Moreover, it’ll often be mixed with lower grade varieties in order to improve margins. If the spice is powdered, it may also be adulterated with fillers like husk to add bulk and further squeeze margins. Since the supply chain is so long and opaque, it’s very hard to tell at which points this adulteration happened.
“On our spice jars, for example, we state very clearly – front and center on the label – which region in a given state this particular spice has come from. There is nobody else who does that. We are hyper focussed on sourcing. In fact, with several of our spices, we can tell you exactly which specific farm it comes from, because of our direct relationship with the farmer. Otherwise, we also source our spices from farm cooperatives, which consist of a couple farms in a given locality. Upon arrival at our headquarters, we grind the spice, pack it and send it to our customers. There are no other players along the way,” claims Meher, while describing the Fairer Foods modus operandi.
A few years ago, Meher says, it was very difficult to get in touch with farmers directly and work with them. They weren’t accessible, particularly bearing in mind the digital divide. Also, consumers weren’t as aware and diligent about where their produce was coming from. Neither is the case today.
Farmers and farm cooperatives are a lot more accessible and people have become far more curious and conscious about where their food ingredients are coming from, particularly in this post-pandemic world.
“Once I researched the spice industry and market, I began getting in touch with individual farmers and farm cooperatives. There were some encouraging developments along the way. For example, the Government of Meghalaya does a fantastic job of connecting entrepreneurs to farmers in the state. All this was done through the course of 2020, which was ravaged by the pandemic. The pandemic-related lockdowns restricted our ability to visit some farms from where we source our spices. We depended on farm cooperatives and farmers sending spice samples, which I would assess and get tested at food testing laboratories. Executing the process remotely was challenging and time consuming, particularly since I was doing pretty much all the work. A friend designed our packaging, which was in itself quite hard, particularly understanding what we could ship safely and effectively. For example, our square glass jars, while very popular, are also very difficult and expensive to ship,” she notes.
Going beyond selling freshly harvested spices
Fairer Foods sources their spices from all over the country. Whether it’s Lakadong Turmeric from a farmer in Meghalaya, mustard seeds from a farm in north-west Punjab, or Malabar Black Pepper (ground) from a farmer co-operative in Idukki, Kerala, Fairer Foods receives a myriad of spice varieties at their headquarters in Chandigarh.
Upon arrival, Meher inspects the shipment sent and sends a couple of samples for random laboratory testing. These spices are grounded at a certified facility under close supervision, packed into glass jars or pouches, labelled and then shipped out through multiple delivery partners.
Spice farmers are paid based on Fairtrade prices, sometimes even more, she claims.
“Our objective is to minimize intermediaries to benefit farmers like us with better prices, and the consumers with fresher and better quality. We achieve this objective when selling our spices (such as hand-picked cloves and Ceylon cinnamon) directly to Fairer Foods in India, and other like-minded importers worldwide. This is a model that works well for both ends of the supply chain – farmers as well as consumers,” says Nihal Ellagella, runs a farm of his own in Digana, Sri Lanka, and also works with neighboring farmers in the area.
Fairer Foods is also in the business of educating their customers. There is a misconception among some that the only way to find out whether spices have been adulterated is through complex lab tests.
Yes, lab tests do present a more precise picture, but there are also some very easy and simple home tests to spot adulteration in your spices – which they share on their Instagram page.
“Coriander, for example, often contains husk, which is added to increase the weight. It’s easy for someone to put a spoon of coriander in a glass of water and then see what happens. If it’s adulterated, the husk rises to the surface. Our objective is to empower people with information, so they can be more conscious of what they’re consuming,” explains Meher.
It has been only six months since the launch and this young venture is continually optimising their processes. Just this week, based on feedback from customers who said they wanted to buy the spices in larger quantities, they launched refill packs for customers who had bought their glass jars. A completely bootstrapped venture, in the first month, Fairer Foods sold more than 400 jars, and those figures have only risen month-on-month. The road ahead looks bright because after all who wouldn’t want to flavour their food with fresh and unadulterated spices.
(You can buy your additive-free spices from Fairer Foods on their website. Click here to know more.)
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)