By Michael Gregson
Regularly as clockwork the Sri Lankan Navy intercepts smugglers trying to reach the island – but instead of Kerala cannabis or other drugs, increasingly the boats are loaded with a cooking ingredient.
Demand for turmeric, believed by many to have immunity-boosting qualities, has skyrocketed in Sri Lanka during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last December, about a month before Sri Lanka saw its first COVID-19 case, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s new Government banned the import of a range of spices – including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and turmeric – in a bid to bolster domestic produce.
While it used to cost 350 Sri Lankan Rupees (US$1.90) per kilogram before the pandemic, the price of turmeric now goes for up to US$27 per kilogram – a 13-fold increase. This has handed smugglers a highly lucrative new product. According to the South China Morning Post, some people are willing to pay even more. It reports that 100kg of the smuggled yellow spice can be exchanged for up to 1kg of gold.
Authorities from both India and Sri Lanka have seized multiple shipments of turmeric over the past few months amid a crackdown on smuggling activity in the vast Bay of Bengal waters. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu 4,685kg of turmeric has been confiscated in a single district in the last two months.
“We’ve stepped up our intelligence-gathering efforts in the region and increased our sea patrols to curb the rapidly growing smuggling activities,” said R Chinnawamy, Superintendent of Police at the coastal district Nagapattinam.
“It is difficult to catch the perpetrators as turmeric is a commonly used product and there is no restriction for its movement within Tamil Nadu. So, the smugglers easily transfer the spice in large quantities from turmeric-growing region to coastal areas under the pretext of domestic use,” he added.
The spike in demand for the smuggled spice has led to increased fears about the adulteration of turmeric powder. Additions like rice flour, wheat flour or even toxic yellow dye are added to turmeric to bulk it out and make even higher profits.
The adulteration of spices is a global problem – including America – the leading importer of turmeric worldwide, with imports valued at more than US$ 35 million annually, up from only US$ 2.5 million 15 years ago. In the US turmeric has become a spice “it girl,” an anchor in supplements, adding a sunny yellow high note in cold-pressed juices and providing the razzle-dazzle in trendy beverages such as Starbucks’ golden turmeric latte. It’s touted as a “superfood” and promoted as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
A study by Stanford University last year says it may also contain lead, a potent neurotoxin. Some spice processors in Bangladesh use an industrial lead chromate pigment to increase turmeric’s bright yellow colour, which makes it a prized addition to curries and other dishes.
“We found higher-than-expected lead levels in the population in Bangladesh in a place with little industry and where leaded gas had been banned since 1999,” said Jenna Forsyth, a postdoctoral student at Stanford’s Woods Institute on the Environment and lead author of the report. Once turmeric roots are harvested they are dried and polished in a machine that looks like a rock tumbler to rub away the outer skin. To remove the need to remove all the skin, which can cause 10 to 15 per cent of the root to be wasted, processors add lead chromate, an industrial yellow pigment commonly used to colour toys and furniture.
The pigment makes it easier to get the skin off and gives the skinless root a more appealing colour. This practice dates to the 1980s when floods left turmeric crops damp and with roots dingy in colour. Lead increases the risk of heart and brain disease in adults and interferes with children’s brain development. About 90 percent of children with elevated blood lead levels live in lower-income countries, and resulting cognitive damage is associated with nearly US$1 trillion in lost productivity annually, according to a New York University study.
As food supplies becomes more global, an adulteration problem in Bangladesh has international ramifications. India produces more than 80 per cent of the world’s turmeric; Bangladesh is fifth in production after China, Myanmar and Nigeria, with only 3 per cent of the world’s supply, but that number is on the rise as rice farmers diversify their crops.
So be careful where you buy your turmeric – not only could you be paying a high financial price for the smuggled spice – you could also be costing your children their future health.