Moroccan saffron farmers battle knockoff spices

Saffron farmers in southern Morocco have long taken pride in the coveted spice they produce from the purple-petalled Crocus sativus, but some are worried knockoff versions are threatening their business.

“The pure saffron of Taliouine is the best in the world, according to experts,” local grower Barhim Afezzaa boasted, proudly noting his spice’s designation of origin (PDO) label.

But the 51-year-old is worried that “counterfeit” crops are tarnishing Taliouine’s reputation and its PDO — which guarantees a product’s origin and uniqueness.

In small plots below the snowy peaks of Mount Toubkal, saffron cultivation in Taliouine has remained largely unchanged for centuries.

The flower requires drastic climate conditions — hot summers and cold, wet winters — and it can only be harvested during a month-long window from mid-October to mid-November.

Workers start at dawn each morning, meticulously picking the delicate flowers by hand and placing them in wicker baskets. The purple blooms are picked before they fully open to ensure quality.

Once dried and sorted, the flower’s crimson stigmas and styles are turned into saffron — the world’s most expensive spice — popular with top chefs across the globe.

Morocco is the world’s fourth largest producer of saffron, behind Iran, India and Greece, according to the figures published in 2013 by FranceAgriMer, France’s specialist institute of agriculture and fishing.

‘From father to son’

The spice is both a source of pride and a lifeline in the Berber city of Taliouine, which, along with a neighbouring town, produces 90% of the kingdom’s saffron.

Some 1 500 families in Taliouine depend on sales from the crop to survive.

Knockoff versions “damage the image of this culture handed down from father to son, which is our pride”, said 24-year-old Driss, a member of a local collective in the area.

Saffron’s rarity and its painstaking cultivation help explain its price — it takes nearly a kilogram of flowers to create 12 grams of the spice.

In Morocco, PDO-certified saffron sells for about three euros ($3.5) a gram, according to Dar Azaafaran, or The House of Saffron, which works with 25 local cooperatives.

To maintain their PDO-label and association with Dar Azaafaran, producers submit their harvest for various tests that check for moisture content, taste, colour and smell.

Counterfeit saffron can sell “for less than a euro a gram at the famous Derb Omar market in Casablanca”, said Dar Azaafaran’s head Ismail Boukhriss.

Local producers say counterfeiters often use chemical dyes and remains of other plants in an attempt to pass poor quality saffron off as a top-shelf spice.

Boukhriss said that while authorities hold PDO-labelled producers to a high standard, “the informal market is not subjected to the same controls”.

The National Food Safety office told AFP that some “non-conformities” were detected in bulk sales of saffron which had not been properly packaged or labelled.

It advised buyers to only purchase “products labelled and packaged by approved and authorised sellers”.

Some say salesmen working to sell saffron outside the PDO-approved collective networks are to blame, while other small growers sell to middlemen to avoid payment delays common to larger groups.

© Agence France-Presse

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


The recovered remain cautious

People who have survived Covid-19 are not going through life carefree. They are still taking all the preventative measures

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations

Senwes launches Agri Value Chain Food Umbrella

South African farmers can now help to feed the needy by donating part of their bumper maize crop to delivery number 418668

Ethics and internal financial controls add value to the public sector

National treasury is rolling out accounting technician training programmes to upskill those who work in its finance units in public sector accounting principles

Lessons from South Korea for Africa’s development

'Leaders can push people through, through their vision and inspiration, based on their exemplary actions'

Old Mutual announces digital AGM

An ambitious plan to create Africa’s biggest digital classroom is intended to address one of the continent’s biggest challenges — access to education

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday