/ Food & Drink

New food fraud: oregano or oreganot?

We’ve all got a friend so fussy about food it drives you mad. You learn to shut out their gripes about a dish that tastes fine to you. So when my friend complained that herbs ‘aren’t what they used to be’, I switched off.

Well it seems I should be eating humble pie. A new study revealed exclusively to Which? has found that oregano isn’t always oregano.

In fact, nearly a quarter of the samples of oregano tested contained other ingredients, most commonly olive and myrtle leaves, which were found to make up 30% to 70% of the product.

So in other words, in some cases less than a third of the product bought was actually oregano.

The trouble is it’s impossible for any shopper to tell, without the help of scientists, what herbs they’re actually buying. We think it’s unacceptable that you don’t know what you’re adding to your food.

So we want retailers, producers and enforcement officers need to step up checks to stamp out this latest example of food fraud.

Fake oregano just the latest food fraud

Sadly, this is just the latest product to add to the growing aisle of fraudulent food.

Last year, we found that 40% of the lamb takeaways we tested contained other meat, and one in six of the fish we bought from chip shops turned out not to be what we’d ordered.

In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, the Government tackled this fraud head on and set up the Food Crime Unit.

Now it’s time to see the Food Standards Agency putting this crime unit to good use so we can know what we’re putting on our pizzas or in our salads, without the need for a CSI investigation on the contents of our kitchen cupboards.

Are you confident that the food you buy is genuine? Do you think enough is being done to stamp out food fraud?


Until now the most interesting thing I knew about oregano was that it is acceptable in pronunciation to stress either the ‘e’ [as a short vowel] or the ‘a’ [as a long vowel]. I am in the latter camp because it rhymes with Lugano and sounds more natural. To discover that the herb is routinely adulterated is awful. However, I would have welcomed some guidance on where to buy pure oregano and which to avoid. Cynically, I have wondered whether the suppliers have resorted to adding other ingredients because they think it won’t matter since (a) the British don’t know their parsley from their oregano, and (b) they keep their herbs for ages in dusty little jars until the flavour has all but disappeared.

On the scale of food frauds I wouldn’t put this very near the top of the table and hope excessive resources are not diverted to dealing with it. A quick note from the FSA to the producers and retailers to say “you’ve been rumbled – sort it out” should do the trick. There are probably worse hazards in the condiments aisle.

Why do the reports not identify the brands of herbs involved and the retailers that sell them? I’d like to know who to avoid.

I would guess Tesco own brand Oregano is one offender. The last one I bought from there was tasteless and when I smelt the jar, it had very little smell.

That could mean there were no myrtle leaves in it!

LOL !!!!!!

Hopefully no-one will be harmed by adulterated oregano. Food adulteration has a long history and here are many examples of dangerous additives finding their way into food: http://www.rsc.org/Education/EiC/issues/2005Mar/Thefightagainstfoodadulteration.asp

In the world of herbs and spices, adulteration of saffron is well known and driven by the high cost of the genuine article. If oregano – a cheap herb – is being substituted, goodness knows what else is in our kitchen cupboards.

Without having information about which brands of oregano have been adulterated, the Which? report is not very helpful. “The Seasoning and Spice Association (SSA) members take matters of food authenticity very seriously.” Unless the SSA push for a recall of adulterated oregano, I will assume that they are only concerned about falling sales due to lack of consumer confidence.

Another thing I find fraudulent, is calling a product by an ingredient that is not a main ingredient.

i.e. Coconut Dream milk substitute.

It contains 14% rice and 4% coconut milk and not surprisingly tastes of rice.

I think they have changed the packaging since it first came out. It is still called Coconut Dream but now says “mix of Coconut and Rice” on the front of the carton.

It’s correct name should be Rice and Coconut Dream.

If an ingredient appears in the product name or features prominently in an image the quantity must be declared. So Coconut Dream does comply with the law. 🙁

Coconut Dream might comply with the law but I still find it fraudulent. I bought one to try and it tasted of rice so I consider I was parted from my money by false pretenses.

The best coconut drink on the market is Koko that has a higher percentage of coconut milk in it
than the 2 bigger brands that are pushing it out of the market:
– Koko 8.4% (no rice)
– Coconut Dream 4% (rice 14%)
– Alpro Coconut Drink 5.3% (rice 3.3%)

Most of the supermarkets have stopped selling Koko and Ocado is the only one that seems to stock it and another reason to shop there.

There are plenty of watery rice drinks on the market and the bigger brands are adding rice to coconut milk to make it cheaper to produce but they lack the taste and consistency of Koko. I have also tried the Alpro one and didn’t like that either.

But it is only a matter of time before another really good product from a small company disappears from the market because of the power and greed of the supermarkets.

Dishonesty and misrepresentation has been going on since long before were were born, Alfa. There are some delightful examples in old advertising. The problem you have raised could have been addressed when the requirement for quantitative declaration was introduced but since government pays more attention to companies than consumers, we have an unsatisfactory solution.

To publish a report without naming names seems rather poor journalism to me. I say a member of the Cabinet defintely cross-dresses and just leave it that shall I?

I am glad Which? is doing investigative work but it has to have the cojones to name names – and responses from the named. Or does it mean the tests are not robust enough?

On a factual matter:

What are the priority foods to check for fraud? Where do herbs come in order of importance? I just wonder what decided that Oregano should be picked on for investigation, and by whom.

Given the date of the US recall it may have been useful if the UK investigation it had discovered salmonella on dried oregano in the UK. However I am guessing.

Another guess is that herbs and spices are being tested for undeclared allergens. These have certainly been a problem with some spices.

I work in Trading Standards – proactive enforcement checks are very few and far between now – and even if they were we would generally focus of the more mainstream stuff like alcohol being watered down etc.

Checking of oregano may go up as it is a known issue now.

I believe the FSA Food Crime Unit in the first year is only gathering intelligence.

Basically if you think there are loads of people out there trying to deal with food fraud you are mistaken. There numbers of people simply are not there.


robin58 says:
25 July 2015

Well Which?. I pay you a subscription for you to find out these things.

It would be expected for you to tell me what companies are adulterating my food.

Please tell me or can you refund me some of my subscription money.

Johnston says:
26 July 2015

Which magazine,
Name and shame the offending herb /spice companies and or brands. Consumers need further protection and information against fraud. Expected “Which” magazine to be much, more robust, now we have some oregano research but are left in the dark about the other details.
So you will understand incomplete facts will be of no help to me when next shoping for oregano.

Madeline says:
26 July 2015

Grow your own then you will know that it is 100% right

Growing your own herbs is an alternative but no good in the winter in this country for many herbs. When I can, I buy pot growing or packets of fresh cut herbs from the supermarket, then just put them in plastic bags in the freezer. When you take them out frozen, just squeeze the bag and they come out already ‘chopped’. They seem to keep all winter in the freezer without any loss of flavour.

Nenna, a number of people seem to think that the manufacturers and retailers of fake oregano should be disclosed. Are Which? going to do this?

Neena, Thanks I don’t understand “Due to the small sample size is, we can’t fairly name and shame brands and companies’ whole range of oregano products.” Surely if you’ve tested a product that is shown to be fraudulent, and then broadcast to the world that a quarter of samples tested was fake, you must have grounds to disclose the offenders?

Neena – correct me if I am wrong but I understand Which? only tests one each of a manufactured item AND then writes a review. One might feel that this system is directly analogous to the testing of the oregano.

Perhaps you could confirm this.

In any event publishing with caveats would still be a vast improvement on this general blackening of the oregano spice providers.