The 17 members of the gang, from the central region of Castilla-La Mancha, are accused of importing cheaper Iranian saffron and mixing it with EU-approved Spanish saffron for distribution in Europe.
The arrests follow a yearslong investigation launched after it became apparent in 2013 that most Spanish saffron was bogus. That year the entire country produced around 1,700kg of the spice, yet exported more than 10,000kg.
Saffron has long been regarded as the world’s most expensive spice by weight at around £6,000 per kilo and criminals have targeted its market before: last year UK police reported a £45,000 saffron heist from a London warehouse.
“Saffron is total bullshit, it's like buying drugs, you must have a spice dealer you trust,” said the chef of a Persian restaurant in Paris, who absolutely refused to be named while speaking of what he called the “saffron mafias.”
The EU has determined spices are the sixth most bootlegged or faked foodstuff under the continent's draconian food origin laws that control which regions can claim certain types of food exports.
“Amongst all spices, saffron is the most appealing to criminals. Its harvest is limited while its production is costly, making it the most expensive spice worldwide,” the EU’s 2019 food safety report said.
The Castilla-La Mancha saffron cell was caught mixing small amounts of Spanish saffron with cheaper Iranian sourced imports, as well as what investigators described as a mix of twigs, stems, and dyes to give the mixture additional weight and the proper orange-red colouring.
“This saffron was mixed for the most part with floral remains, styles and stamens that should not be sold as saffron, increasing the sales volume; They even used colourants not authorised for consumption by the European Union or the United States, to dye the final product, confirming the purchase of several tons of this substance,” Spanish police said.
And the spice is so rare and so expensive, even professional chefs need to be careful, said the Paris-based chef.
“I can tell because I’m an Iranian who has been cooking with it my entire life, but making sure you don’t end up with bullshit saffron is as time consuming as checking all the other produce, meat and fish…” said the chef. “You really can’t trust anyone with it, it’s too expensive and hard to get for there not to be a counterfeit market.”
And saffron crime pays: During its two year investigation into the ring, Spanish authorities coordinated with Europol to check hundreds of bank accounts – because the gang had formed companies across Europe to launder the proceeds – as well as seizures of tens of thousands in euros, multiple vehicles, 35 properties, industrial mixers, and a metric tonne of saffron worth around €10 million (roughly £8.5 million).