1 in 4 samples of bought sage contained other ‘leaves’

How safe is your Sage? That’s the question posed by researchers at the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast after finding more than a quarter of samples of the popular herb were adulterated – some by as much as 58%.

sage and thyme credit Bell

The team carrying out the research, led by IGFS founder Professor Chris Elliott OBE, previously uncovered the high extent of fraud in Oregano supplies. That 2015 research, undertaken in partnership with consumer organisation Which?, found that around one in four samples contained ingredients that were not Oregano and caused shockwaves through the herb and spice industry. The findings were followed up by a number of food-standards agencies around the world, resulting in at least one prosecution.

In this latest study, 19 samples of Sage were examined between August and September 2020 at IGFS in Belfast. The samples were bought from major online retailers; all the well-known UK supermarkets; and smaller, independent shops such as ethnic grocery stores.

What might be reassuring for some consumers is that none of the brands sold by the big UK supermarket chains was found to be fraudulent.

Only some Sage sold by online retailers and smaller independents was found to have been bulked out with olive leaves and/or leaves from other trees. While the leaves detected are not believed to be harmful, food fraud always carries the potential for food-safety and public-health hazards.

What also might constitute good news is that adulteration in Oregano has apparently reduced significantly since 2015. A total of 20 Oregano samples were tested alongside the Sage at IGFS in Summer 2020, as a follow-up to the 2015 research. The 2020 survey found only one instance of Oregano adulteration – a fivefold drop.

The methods used in the 2020 study comprised a tailored blend of spectroscopy and chemometric modelling to identify a food ‘fingerprint’, developed by Prof Elliott and his team at the ASSET Technology Centre at IGFS in Belfast. These innovative methods, which have been ISO-accredited, are the subject of a 2019 publication (available on request) for the Journal of AOAC International. The analyses were carried out by Bia Analytical Ltd, a recent spinout company from IGFS at Queen’s specialising in the authenticity testing of foodstuffs.

The results of this latest snapshot study have been shared for potential follow-up with the Food Industry Intelligence Network; the National Food Crime Unit; and the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit. All of these organisations were established as a direct result of the 2014 Elliott Report, an independent review led by Prof Chris Elliott into the integrity of the UK food industry after the horsemeat crisis.

Speaking about the latest results for Sage and Oregano, Prof Elliott commented:

“I am sad to confirm that once again we have identified a major problem linked to the supply chains associated with supplies of herbs and spices to the UK consumer.

“The potential to cheat in these supply chains has been recognised as a global issue. Testing has shown that just over 25% of all Sage samples analysed were heavily adulterated.

“On a more positive note I am pleased to advise that after the shockwaves caused by our original Oregano study in 2015, in our new survey only one incidence of adulteration of Oregano was found. This clearly shows that when supply chains are checked it reduces the incidence of fraud substantially.

“All of the Sage samples that were found to be adulterated were purchased from small, independent retail chains or from global online retailers and none was from the UK supermarket chains sampled.”

Image by Lukáš Jančička from Pixabay

1 reply »

  1. A couple of years ago, we bought a packet of spinach, which contained a sprig of potato leaf. Potato leaves are toxic.

    I will now reproduce Mike’s exchange with the Co-op about these leaves…….

    From: Bernie Bell
    Sent: 14 June 2018 08:43
    To: ‘’
    Subject: Potato leaves in spinach packet


    I’m not sure if this is the right email address to use, but hopefully you can forward this on if necessary. My membership number, in case it is helpful, is *******
    I am contacting the Co-op because of a potentially dangerous inclusion I found in a packet of prepared spinach this morning – potato leaves. I have attached pictures of the packet label and the leaves. I thought it best to bring this to your attention because potato leaves are toxic, and may be particularly dangerous to vulnerable people such as pregnant women. Not everyone would recognise them (I am a biologist and a gardener), and even for people able to recognise these leaves it would be very easy to miss them and eat them without being aware. The idea of bags of prepared salad is that they need no preparation – plonk them on your plate and eat them! – so there is a real danger that unintended inclusions will be eaten. Obviously, this is not a good thing!

    PLEASE would you contact your suppliers to insist on better standards of quality control, at whatever stages of the process it is possible for unwanted and possibly dangerous items to be included in the packets. The Co-op is known for the high standards it requires in the quality and ethical production of its food. I value this, and I would hate to think that these standards might be slipping, thereby harming people.

    By the way, in case you are wondering about the date on the packet – I bought the packet as “still fresh”, and it must have been longer ago than I thought. The spinach is still perfectly edible, however!

    Best regards

    Dr Michael Bell

    From: Bell, Michael C
    Sent: 04 July 2018 09:44
    To: ‘’
    Cc: ‘Bernie Bell’
    Subject: FW: Potato leaves in spinach packet

    I’d still be interested in seeing a response to the query below, sent three weeks ago.
    Best regards
    Dr Michael Bell

    Dear Co-op
    Another month on, and I still haven’t had a response. This won’t do, and I am reluctant to let this go because of the toxic nature of the inclusion in the packet. What do I need to do to get an answer?
    Copied to Food Standards Scotland and Alistair Carmichael MP.
    Dr Michael Bell

    We never got a response. We are usually big fans of the Co-op , but, they do tend to be rubbish at responding to customer queries or complaints – this one, matters.
    ‘Nuff said.

    We now grow our own Spinach….and Sage….and Oregano. It’s nicer, too!

Leave a Reply