Gangs make a fortune from the ancient art of adulterating saffron

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It was a scam punishable by death at the stake in 15th century Nuremberg and during the reign of Henry VIII but the lucrative crime of selling adulterated forms of the spice saffron is alive and well again in Yorkshire, trading standards officers said.

The precious spice, used to colour and flavour dishes, is gathered from the red stigma of crocuses, 85,000 of which are needed to obtain a kilogram. The harvest must be between dawn and 10am, since the stigmas lose colour and aroma if left too long in the plant. All this intricacy prices the spice at £3.75 a gram in supermarkets. Many retailers stock it behind the till for fear of theft.

To the untutored palate, the top Spanish "mancha" grade - worth £3,750 a pound to a retailer - is indistinguishable from adulterated versions trading standards officers have found on sale at £277 a pound in Bradford. Tests on the Bradford samples, which were passed off as pure saffron, showed that 20 to 25 per cent of the spice had been mixed with the crocus's yellow stamen, which is worthless, and artificial colourings. A retailer in Dewsbury was sold 6kg of Spanish saffron for £1,800, apparently unaware it was adulterated, said standards officers.

As Britain imports 1,000kg of the spice a year, the potential market value, based on the supermarket price, is more than £3m and potential profit on 1lb of flawed spice could be more than £3,000 (the current price of gold is about £175 an ounce).

"We believe this practice could be nationwide," said Graham Hebblethwaite, one of the trading standards officers investigating the scam. "We don't know the full extent of the problem because we are yet to track down those who are importing the product. It would be easier if somebody was buying en bloc in Leeds then mixing it, but all this merchandise is pre-packed before export. Some of it says 'España' and something in Arabic on the label, but its source is uncertain. Things are not always what they seem."

A new competitor in the British market, the Alicante-based Verdu Canto Saffron, realised adulteration was taking place when it began exporting mancha-grade spice to Britain last year and found itself priced out of the market, which is dominated by Spain and Iran. The company blew the whistle on the trade, presenting West Yorkshire with Bradford samples which were proved to be adulterated. Officers took their own samples from two stores in Batley - both innocent parties - and established more proof. Attempts to trace the supplier have reached Glasgow and Edinburgh, where two premises were found to be closed and boarded up.

Verdu told standards officers it believed the illegal trade centres on West Yorkshire, Leicester and Brent, reflecting the fact that British saffron consumers tend to be of Indian origin.

Patrick de la Cueva, Verdu's marketing director, said unscrupulous Spanish exporters were, on demand, flooding the British market with cheap saffron, some of it 40 per cent fake."Those who know very little about it cannot distinguish but the [substitute] stamen has no properties at all and it is worthless. If just 10 per cent of the content of a box costs nothing, you get a nice little margin."

Centuries of desire for saffron have made this practice a habitual temptation. It is said to have been used in Egypt by Cleopatra as an aromatic and as a seductive essence, and in Greece to remedy sleeplessness and hangovers, to perfume bathes and as an aphrodisiac. The Arabs introduced its cultivation to Spain in the 10th century.

In Britain in the Middle Ages its purity was of such importance that draconian laws were implemented to deter fraud. Culprits faced being burnt at the stake or buried alive with their corrupt merchandise, a fate said to have befallen many, since at times the spice's rarity meant its price exceeded that of gold.

Amid such demand, the spice turmeric has been passed off as saffron for centuries, as has the head of a dried thistle-like flower commonly known as safflower, old English names for which include "bastard saffron".

One beneficiary of the plant's rarity was the town of Walden, where in the 14th century a pilgrim is said to have brought a stolen bulb of saffron hidden in a hole in his stick from the Middle East. The bulb grew and the trade became successful enough for the town to be renamed Saffron Walden. The crocus started to become difficult to get hold of locally in the early 1700s but for about 250 years was harvested every autumn, the flowers picked from the early morning, before sunrise, until about 10 or 11am.

In Yorkshire yesterday connoisseurs of the spice seemed oblivious to the resurfacing of a trade many experts in the history of saffron thought no longer existed.

Zafar Iqbal, a partner in the Leeds chain Aagra, voiced fears at the thought of pale imitations. "The smell is pure and unmistakable," he said. "I go to bed with saffron mixed with milk for the arthritis. I would be anxious at the thought of imitations. We cook with nothing but the authentic item."

Duncan Campbell, the West Yorkshire trading standards service's public analyst, who studied the false Yorkshire spices, said the fraudulent traders were sophisticated and so far had managed to cover their tracks in Britain.

Investigations are now to be pursued by Spanish trading standards officers, and details of the trade have also been passed to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mr Campbell said.

It is improbable that the ministry will go to the lengths of the Nuremberg authorities, who in 1444 burnt Jobst Findeker, an adulterator of the spice, at the stake with his impure product. "These days it's a £5,000 fine, but we are on to this trade and will aim to stop it," said Mr Hebblethwaite.