Last year, a huge food scare erupted over an illegal, carcinogenic dye found in some imported chilli powders. And the nightmare hasn't stopped for spice businesses in Britain.
For some, the knock-on effect of "Sudan 1" has been particularly unfair. "We are very stringent about the produce we import and would never add food colouring," explains Tony Deep, the chairman of East End Foods. "We would like to know how can we convince our consumers that our products are totally pure."
The firm, which imports chillies, spices, rice and lentils, was founded in 1972 after Mr Deep and his brothers moved to the UK from India.
"The idea came about when I was living alone and found myself cooking a lot," he says. "I knew a little bit about Indian food and so I thought why don't we buy some spices from importers and sell them on.
"We decided to focus firmly on quality and have been selling to businesses, ranging from small shopkeepers to major supermarkets, ever since."
East End Foods now has a turnover of £97m and employs more than 260 people. "But we are concerned that consumers don't realise we are different from other importers. We go straight to the farmer for our produce and so things like Sudan 1 - as well as other problems that can exist with foods from the East - simply don't apply to us."
Traditionally, he explains, farmers in Asian countries take their produce to the "mandy". "This is the local auction, which looks a bit like Smithfield Market, where buyers queue up and buy their produce in huge quantities," explains Mr Deep. "The problem with this is that you don't know the background of the produce. For example, if you buy cumin, you don't know that it hasn't been grown next to peanuts, which means there may be peanut traces in the cumin and you can't declare that there are no traces of nuts. But because we go direct to the farmer, and nowhere near a mandy, we can make that promise."
East End Foods also tests the produce to ensure it is pure, as well as getting involved in educating its providers. "If you take chillies, for example, most farmers say they don't want to throw anything away. This means they include the chillies that are infested with white fungus - known as aflatoxin - because they know that once it's ground, it won't show and the consumer will be none the wiser. But in fact, aflatoxin is carcinogenic if consumed in large quantities. So we educate our farmers not to do that - as well as making it financially worthwhile for them - and they give us only what nature intended. Likewise, we educate them not to overspray the crops with pesticides."
Having achieved quality control, Mr Deep is unsure how to get this message across to the end buyer. "I give presentations and lectures but this reaches only a very limited audience," he says. "We've also tried stating it on the packaging, but that doesn't seem to stand out enough."
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Paul Gostick, Chairman, The Chartered Institute of Marketing
"Consumers will pay for quality and provenance if they trust the company and its products. But what makes a particular product special must be quickly and easily understood.
"Mr Deep must isolate the key factors about his company that set it apart from the competition. Then he must boil these down into a handful of words that feature in all marketing material, from his website's home page to his packaging. A more detailed explanation of how East End Foods achieves high standards can be provided in supplementary material.
"When dealing with complex issues such as the provenance of food, this may seem a big ask. However, the values and the unique characteristics of the world's greatest brands can always be summed up in a single phrase that's well understood by customers."
Nick Booker, Director at Consultants Attract Marketing
"Spices are commodities and many customers buy on price. So the company needs to move away from selling 'the product' to selling 'the brand' and building a reputation.
"It has a good story on sourcing, but who knows about it? The spices need to be perceived as unique. All aspects of the marketing, including packaging and distribution, should reflect the high quality of the company and its products.
"In doing so, there is a need to gain the confidence of both distributors and consumers. Advertising has a role, but in these circumstances there should be a public relations campaign aimed at food journalists and other opinion formers. This should go hand in hand with third-party endorsements and the achievement of an industry quality standard."
Philip Wilkinson, Business Adviser, Business Link for London
"East End Foods needs to create a brand identity that strongly associates the company with its stringent quality control. It should consider investing in a long-term PR campaign to raise awareness and ensure consumer confidence.
"Networking - attending relevant industry seminars and events - is also important. By speaking at various events, Mr Deep can become known as an expert in this area. This can lead to his spices being the product of choice for retailers.
"Another option is for Mr Deep to join forces with competitors and develop a formal quality standard, or 'Kitemark', for the spices industry.
"This system would express the standards that are set for the way spices are produced, and so deliver customer satisfaction, an improved reputation for the industry and measurable benefits for the businesses themselves."Reuse content