The spice trade has faced challenging times over the last year due to Covid-19 pandemic. For a labour-intensive industry, it has had to bear up with lockdowns and breakages in the supply chain. But it has weathered the storm and learnt lessons. It has brought in technology to ensure quality. A close look at the spice trade.

Spice trade has been going on for centuries and no one could have imagined a disruption. But the Covid-19 pandemic was able to almost cause a serious disruption to the global spice trade, just as it did for many other commodities in the food sector.

Towards the end of March 2020 when the pandemic was raging, most countries across the world were in lockdown and imposed strict control measures. Once that happened the chain that was part of the network that produces, transports, processes and packages spices – the spice value chain – was broken. Incidentally, this happened at a time when the interest in therapeutic and nutraceutical properties of spices was increasing worldwide, creating a high global demand for high quality spices. On one side was the huge demand while on the other there was the broken supply chain: it was one of the worst scenarios that the global spice trade faced.

As a result, major spice production hubs spread across developing countries of the world were severely affected. Raw material was in short supply. Compounding the problem was the lockdown which brought in travel restrictions affecting the movement of agricultural labourers in these countries.

India's share in world spices production
India’s share in global spices trade and spices production

More problems followed: Wholesale markets and auctions were stopped and there were additional border control measures imposed by governments of various countries. All this posed another kind of challenge: ensuring the quality and safety of spices at a time when food testing laboratories were also facing challenges due to the pandemic.

When the situation changed, many countries gradually started opening up and lifting restrictions/control measures. This helped the situation on the ground level leading to an improvement in spice production, manufacture. Subsequently, exports improved too. In the face of challenges that arose due to the pandemic, new methods of coping with the challenges have emerged in the spice trade.

Today, the spice trade that was keen to adopt and deploy automation in operations both as a measure to enhance food safety and to address labour issues has seen many units experimenting successfully with leveraging information technology solutions and mobile applications to augment or replace physical interactions in scenarios like supervised cultivation and contract farming.

As for food safety – that was heightened by the pandemic – spice industries across the world, like other food industries, took renewed interest in implementation of HACCP and Food Safety Management Systems, with additional checkpoints for microbiological contamination. There have been notable advances in deployment of rapid testing technologies that provide quick and reliable test results for major quality and safety parameters in spices.

These positive changes in the spice value chain have added great value to the growth of the sector. It is hoped that the crisis in spice trade has been met and addressed successfully. Perhaps, what is a matter of concern is that the pandemic situation remains a matter of concern to the global community – now with the second wave of the disease emerging in many parts. While lockdowns have been imposed in many states of India, there is likelihood that some countries may experience another phase of lockdown and restrictions.

It is now that the lessons learnt in the first wave will pay off for the spice sector. In the post-covid world, the spices that are known to have health benefits will be in high demand. Food safety and quality of spices will be in focus and benchmarks will become more stringent. Sustainable production and traceability, though challenging in the spice trade, are acquiring renewed importance. Modernization of wholesale markets have already become a global trend to ensure food safety.

Spice producing countries that embrace changes and adapt quickly will emerge as leaders in the spice trade. In addition to all this, the present crisis has also brought in enhanced situational awareness to countries and industries alike: in the post-pandemic world, having better crisis management protocols for greater preparedness to deal with unforeseen crises will be a part of normal operation protocol.

CCSCH and Worldwide Spice Standards

Standards bring clarity and purpose to counter confusion and chaos in times of crises; thus, the work of Codex Committee on Spices and Culinary Herbs (CCSCH) in developing Codex standards for spices and culinary herbs is even more relevant in the present scenario. Unfortunately, like many other Codex Committee sessions, CCSCH5 was also affected due to the pandemic situation, and after a deferment of nearly a year, this session was held online during April 2021.

The additional time gained by the postponement was put to good use by this committee, even in the face of all the challenges of the times. The seven EWGs, working on five standards at Step 6 (saffron, cloves, basil, ginger and oregano) and two standards at Step 3 (chilli/paprika and nutmeg) continued their work to refine the draft documents as much as possible, and it is expected that the draft standards have achieved higher quality and consistency.

CCSCH5 presented the stakeholders of the global spice trade with a unique opportunity on the virtual platform, to engage in constructive deliberations and contribute to successfully develop global standards for more spices to support global trade.

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