Paprika panic

The meaning of globalisation hits home — hard

The heart (and stomachs) of Hungarians was rudely pierced last Wednesday by the lance of globalisation. A crisis hit the country which had a devastating blow, both economically and socially. In some ways, it’s the equivalent of a Hungarian 9/11. No, a jumbo jet didn’t crash into a skyscraper; indeed, the country doesn’t even have any real skyscrapers. For many Hungarians what happened on Wednesday, October 27, 2004 is much more serious: the country’s paprika supply was found to be contaminated. To fully understand what this means, one just has to look at a Hungarian menu. The vast majority of Hungarian dishes contain paprika. In some cases, it’s the main ingredient.

News of the food scare first broke on last Wednesday when it was found out that certain brands of paprika contained a poisonous substance, aflatoxin, which was 15 times above acceptable levels. The aflatoxin apparently entered the Hungarian paprika supply through imported paprika from Brazil, which was mixed with Hungarian paprika. The homegrown Hungarian paprika itself was found to not contain any aflatoxin.

Aflatoxin affects the liver and is known to cause cancer. The tainted paprika only has an adverse health effect when about half a kilogram of is consumed within a week. However, considering that paprika is the main ingredient in a vast majority of Hungarian dishes, this is not an improbable scenario.

By the next day, the government banned the sale and use of all forms of paprika. Although the spice itself was banned, processed items such as canned goods and meats which also contained paprika were not affected by the ban. The population was also warned not to use paprika until the results of a thorough test by the national health inspectorate was completed. In some cases, it was recommended that paprika with an expiration date before April 15, 2005 be thrown out. Meanwhile, the police opened a criminal investigation into the matter.

By this time Hungary had also informed other member states of the EU. Yet some didn’t express surprise at the news. Slovakia, for instance, had already warned about the problem with Hungarian paprika two weeks previous. Moreover, it’s confident that it’s supply of paprika is untainted since it’s pure Hungarian paprika and not mixed.

Government Action

The government uncharacteristically appears to be taking a tough stand on the ie. However, it’s not so much consumer health that is the concern as much as that paprika is one of Hungary’s leading exports and symbols. Whatever the true motivation, a nation-wide inspection started almost immediately to make sure that paprika wasn’t being used or sold. Throughout the country, the authorities have been checking to see if the spice has been removed from store shelves and the kitchens of restaurants. The ban is expected to last until the test results are in. In the meantime, if any paprika products are found, shop and restaurant owners are first warned to remove them; if upon a return inspection they have not complied, they are fined.

According to the authorities, there are about 70,000 stores where paprika products are sold. When news of the scare first broke, major supermarkets already had removed the items from their shelves. It’s still unknown how many different paprika shipments need to be inspected. So far, however, tainted paprika had been found in 26 places: 14 grocery stores, 1 wholesaler, 2 shopping centers, 3 public cafeterias, and 6 restaurants.

As far as the government is concerned, the problem lies squarely with the paprika manufacturers because they didn’t do enough to fulfil the requirements of internal HCCP inspections. Jeno Racz, Minister for Health, vowed that they would get to the bottom of the matter and won’t hesitate naming those involved. A punishment of up to three years in prison could be handed out to any individual found to be directly responsible.

So far, three companies were found to be at fault: Kalocsai Fûszerpaprika Rt., Szegedi Fûszerpaprika Rt., and Sukosdi Hazi Pirospaprika Kft. In all, the three paprika manufacturers control more than 60% of the Hungarian market. One of the companies, Szegedi Fûszerpaprika, has already apologised and hoped that soon its product would be back on the shelves. This, of course, all depends on the results of the lab tests and a green light from the authorities.

Yet the manufacturers don’t think the nation-wide ban is warranted. According to the CEO of Szegedi Fûszerpaprika, in total only a couple of tonnes of its paprika products may be tainted, the value of which is not more than 10 million forints. This amounts to just a small fraction of the Hungarian paprika market. Nevertheless, the company notified all its partners of the ban and began recalling shipments. Since its not worth spending the time and money examining the recalled shipments, the recalled shipments will be destroyed.

Conflicting Views

Already, there were complaints during the summer about the use of imported paprika from Brazil and Spain which were being mixed with Hungarian paprika and marketed as such. Questions were being raised then about the inferior quality of the imported paprika and the deceptive practice of using sub-standard produce and marketing it as something superior.

Unfortunately, thanks to globalisation and the corrupt influence of corporations, it’s not mandatory in Hungary to indicate on the package that Hungarian paprika doesn’t also contain a proportion of other paprika mixed in, this according to Peter Biacs, head of the Office for Food Safety. As far as he is concerned, from a quality control standpoint it’s not important. It’s only important if a potentially unsafe additive, such as colouring, is used.

Biacs does admit, however, that if the companies mixed the paprika and hadn’t marketed it as such then the consumers were misled, but since this isn’t illegal at this stage there is nothing the government can do. This seems to run counter to what the police think. They have taken up the case of the tainted paprika and will be looking into its origin and route, how it entered the country, as well as where and how it was sold. Meanwhile, the consumer protection authorities have also initiated proceedings against the manufacturers for not indicating that their products weren’t exclusively Hungarian in origin.

Regardless of present Hungarian practice, from January 1st next year in Hungary producers will be required to provide on labels the full traceability of goods. However, this is of little comfort now to paprika-loving Hungarians. As with other food crises in Europe, such as the BSE crisis in Germany and the UK, it’s a typical case of closing the barn door after the cow had bolted.

Not only this, making a law and putting into practice is one thing; making it practical is another. Multinationals are quite creative in circumventing consumer protection legislation. For instance, the product labeling conditions in Hungary merely stipulate that the ingredients of a product need to be placed on the label. The fact that this information can be so small that it can’t be read with the naked eye — in some cases such labeling was only 1 mm in size — doesn’t concern those who formulate such laws. Indeed, it seems these laws are specifically formulated for the benefit of big business while appearing to appeal to an increasingly skeptical and health-conscious public.

Stemming the Panic

Apart from inadequate laws and contradictory statements from different authorities, problems have already begun to surface over how the crisis is being handled. Although the government has made a show to act quickly and decisively, not everyone is satisfied with how they have been handling the problem. The CEO of one catering company, Junior Vendeglato Rt., complained that they hadn’t received an official notice informing them of the ban. The company feeds approximately 100,000 people daily, and only learned of the ban from the evening news.

At the moment, both industry and government are worried about a nation-wide panic. The Hungarian Hotel and Catering Association has urged a quick conclusion to the tests and to be informed of the results. They warn that the ban and the negative fallout from the paprika scandal could have a disastrous effect on tourism.

There is no disputing the seriousness of the paprika scare. Experts point out that Hungary could lose up to 15% of market share within the EU. The largest importer of Hungarian paprika is Germany at 30% of total exports; other important markets include Austria, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Romania. Despite this, the government doesn’t believe that there will be an EU import ban resulting from this scare.

The government concedes that regardless of the final outcome there will no doubt be negative consequences. As for the general public, however, many have already crossed the threshold from concern to panic. Within a few hours of the scare, almost a thousand people called a dedicated health line asking for further information about the possible effects of consuming tainted paprika.

Ironically, for some people the panic is not over health. Housewives and chefs alike seem more concerned with what to cook rather than if they might poison someone. The ie is so serious that television and radio shows have dedicated air time for alternatives and substitutes to the use of paprika. While most feel that they can do without the red spice in the short term, if the crisis lasts too long then it might cause serious problems.

The Enigma of Globalisation

The paprika scare is just another example of the pitfalls of industrialised agriculture and, more importantly, the dangers of globalisation. There is little control or oversight when it comes to the production process. In this case, not only was the paprika tainted, but a type of chemical was used (probably as a pesticide) which had long been banned in the EU. If there is a silver lining to be found in this dark cloud, it’s that the true meaning of globalisation may finally hit home to many Hungarians.

This wasn’t the first food scare Hungarians had to deal with. Although Hungary was spared the devastating effects of BSE, they had their share of bad meat, such as chickens from China. Indeed, Chinese imports are at the forefront of many such scares; there are rumors that honey from China is also of sub-standard quality as quality control is much more lax there than in Europe.

But globalisation not only represents a direct threat in terms of human health. It’s also the epitome of the absurdity which lies at the heart of modern notions to world trade. For example, last summer Hungarian garlic was exported to Italy while inferior garlic was imported from China for domestic consumption.

One reason why this absurd economic framework of exporting local produce and importing something inferior in its place has so far worked is because of price and ignorance. Most consumers in Hungary buy such products because they are cheaper and aren’t even aware of what they are buying. Thus, even when consumers have the choice, they still choose products primarily because of price and not quality.

Unfortunately, this absurd economic framework has been reinforced with Hungary’s entrance into the EU. Thanks to EU membership, when the 42.5% duty on imported paprika was lifted, the amount of paprika coming from other countries skyrocketed while at the same time the inspection of such produce declined. With this combination indubitably comes the increased likelihood of tainted products.

In fact, this is exactly what happened with the paprika. Tainted imported produce was mixed with a lower grade homegrown variety, primarily for domestic consumption; meanwhile, higher quality pure Hungarian paprika was exported. Originally, the reason given for importing paprika was because there was a shortage of the homegrown variety, hence the need for the imported produce to make up for the shortfall. However, it now appears that this was not the case, that the tainted paprika from Brazil was brought into the country not because of the amount of paprika available, but its color.

When the paprika pepper is picked, it’s dried and then stored. This stored paprika isn’t ground yet, as ground paprika only retains its colour and taste for about six months. Yet, after long periods of storage even whole paprika begins to lose its colour and taste. As a result, manufacturers brought in paprika from Brazil which isn’t red, as in Hungary, but dark lilac. In this way it darkens the faded red paprika when mixed. Thus, it wasn’t because of a paprika shortage, as first claimed during the summer, that large amounts of imported paprika from Spain and Brazil were being brought into the country, but exactly the opposite; there was a surplus of paprika which needed to be processed.

Ironically, this isn’t the first time that Hungarian paprika became tainted because of a desire to make it more red and appealing. A similar incident happened ten years ago when a batch of Hungarian paprika was found to have been mixed with an unauthorised colouring agent in order to improve its colour. The only difference between then and now is that’s it’s more widespread and dangerous this time round.