The police set up Operation Garden, which led their investigation to different parts of Spain. / sur

Gang arrested for selling fake saffron all over Spain

The Guardia Civil's Operation Garden was carried out in Malaga, Barcelona, Alicante, Granada and Almeria. Police have seized more than 200 kilos of the supposed saffron, with a value of over 750,000 euros

SUR Malaga

The Guardia Civil have arrested 11 members of a criminal gang who were selling molecularly modified gardenia and claiming it was saffron. They are charged with crimes against public health, the market and consumers, as well as fraud and membership of a criminal group.

Three companies through which the suspects were selling the powdered gardenia extract all over Spain are also under investigation. The Guardia Civil’s environmental unit Seprona set up Operation Garden, which took place in Malaga, Barcelona, Alicante, Granada and Almeria.

The gang had found a way of making the swap indetectable by existing technology. There is only one molecule that differentiates powdered saffron from the common gardenia flower, and they reduced its concentration to such an extent that it was almost eliminated.


Gardenia resembles saffron in colour, but the costs of acquiring it are considerably lower than buying the same quantity of saffron. However, the European Union does not consider gardenia to be a foodstuff.

Those arrested were importing gardenia extract without complying with any safety standards, in contravention of European health and food quality protocols. They bought different gardenia extracts from a factory in China which produces food colouring agents, and then passed it off as saffron by changing the labels and technical and Customs documentation which are required from Spanish companies.

Once the product was in Spain, they stored it and manipulated it to match clients’ demands, then introduced it onto the market via major distribution chains. It was then consumed by people who had paid the same price as they would have done if it had really been saffron.

Profits of 800 per cent

By placing these products on the domestic market, the group is believed to have obtained at least three million euros in profits, bearing in mind that they had been selling this fake saffron since 2013. They bought it at such a low price from China that they sold it for 800 per cent more, and even then it was very difficult for other companies in the sector to compete.

Altogether, the Guardia Civil have seized more than 200 kilos of the supposed saffron, with a value of over 750,000 euros.