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Saffron and the need for a transparent supply chain

The days of reckless ecology have largely been replaced by responsible farming and an eye toward sustainability. What remains now is for companies to mainstream their businesses and transparency efforts to satisfy today’s consumers, who are increasingly concerned over environmental and ethical issues impacting the world. In a 2018 Forbes article, a panel initiated by Coresight Research profiled “the new consumer.” They concluded transparency is the new normal and an ethic encompassing all industries.

As consumers continue demanding transparency from companies—particularly along the supply chain—not only do they want to know where products are made and by whom, but also the conditions of the related ingredients, sources, workers and communities.

In an industry that has seen a rapid increase in the use of contract manufacturing, the production of the ingredients that go into consumer products provokes intense scrutiny.

This ethos is vital in the world of nutraceuticals, even more so when it comes to botanical ingredients since there has been a long history of not-so-trustworthy products on the market. Troublesome ingredients are often made available from countries where transparency is difficult to come by, and even harder to control.

An ingredient that has a diverse history because of its sensitivity to cultivation practices is saffron. The botanical provides a great case study regarding the potential of transparency efforts to help meet manufacturer and consumer interests.

Saffron: Botanical gold

Saffron (Crocus sativus) is a plant with a long culinary and medicinal history. It belongs to the family Iridaceae. There are 85 known spices of saffron in the world, but Crocus sativus L. stands-out for its physical and biochemical properties. The flower is sterile and thus cannot produce viable seeds. Reproduction requires intensive human intervention in which the “corms”—compressed underground stems—which must be dug up, divided and replanted. A corm survives only one season, producing via this vegetative division during the winter, up to 10 cormlets that will grow into new plants the following season.

The cultivation, harvest, and effective extraction of saffron crocuses is an arduous task that demands a highly rigorous and controlled process. Because of this, saffron is among the most expensive botanicals in the world—literally worth more than its weight in gold—which makes counterfeiting common. Due to its phenomenal value, saffron is something of a “poster child” for botanical adulteration and outright fraud. In fact, it is considered one of the most adulterated spices in the world.

Most saffron on the market comes from South Asian and Middle Eastern countries (especially Iran), where control over the supply chain is limited or nonexistent and corruption rampant. Unscrupulous purveyors have been caught using everything from beet, pomegranate fibers, safflower, turmeric and marigold to even red-dye silk fibers to doctor or even replace saffron. The saffron which originates from Spain, however, has a lower contamination risk. This is due in great part to the superior cultivation practices in that region.

From the ground up

In saffron farming, the kind of soil is more important than the climate, but 12 hours of daily sunlight is crucial. The soil should ideally be gravelly, loamy or sandy soils and acidic to neutral, with a pH of 6 to 8. The crocus thrives best in warm, subtropical climate and can be grown at up to 2,000 meters above mean sea level.

Critically, the land used to grow saffron must never have been cultivated previously with any kind of flowering species of the same family as Crocus sativus (Iridaceae). This prevents bulbs from getting infected with possible residual pathogens, fungi, bacteria and nematodes. It is even better to grow the bulbs in land where no type of corm or tuber has ever been planted. In specific areas of Spain, the farmland has been preserved specifically for the cultivation of saffron, providing for superior soil conditions.

Harvest and process

It is important to collaborate with saffron farmers, whose craft has been part of their cultural heritage for centuries. They have seasoned knowledge of saffron and how to optimally produce and harvest it, all without chemical fertilizers.

Blooming of saffron usually occurs from October to November. The plant puts forth delicate flowers containing three stigmas. The flowers are harvested at this time when they are in full bloom, and it must be done as soon as possible, before the flower begins to fade. At that point, it will begin to lose potency. Once the flowers are collected, they are gently spread on a tray by hand.

At processing, the three red stigmas are carefully removed from the flower by hand. The pistils containing the stigmas are glued to their endings. The stigmas are then dried using several different techniques. The most traditional method involves spreading the pistils in a rack and then toasting them over low heat until the stigmas are just dry. Then, the rack is placed in the middle of the oven at 90°C (194°F). This stage is critical because the quality of saffron will decrease drastically if stigmas are burned. Once the pistils come apart, they are removed from the oven. Manufacturers adept at processing saffron can preserve its peak freshness and purity through a gentle method of processing and extraction. The processing must be gentle enough to safeguard the potent bioactive compounds in the saffron essence, ensuring a green product. Very few companies utilize a process gentle enough to preserve the highest concentration of saffron. In meeting consumer demand for ecological preservation and sustainability, it is important to avoid the use of harmful solvents, synthetics or additives during the extraction process. In doing so, less industrial processing is required and less waste produced for the environment.

Finally, there must be a comprehensive effort for quality control (QC), including analyses which confirm purity and concentration. To meet clean label standards, the proper testing mechanisms must be in place to verify potency.

The “farm to table” framework, which provides for complete control and traceability of the supply chain, produces ingredients that are highly concentrated with long-lasting stability. Very select companies are doing their part to support this framework. In the end, best practices will require businesses to assume transparency efforts as the “new normal.”

Lucía Fernandez-Sanguino is head of operations, leading the strategic direction at Pharmactive Biotech Products S.L. She has a master’s degree in international business from ESCE International Business School in Paris and more than 15 years of experience in purchasing and supply chain management.

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