There’s an industry that has burgeoned in the last 40 years that has little to do with computer technology or finance, only a minor impact on health care, and is among the oldest industries in the world. It’s the spice industry, and according to Peter Furth ’76, who has spent his entire adult life in the business, it’s in a golden age that’s bringing benefits not only to American taste buds, but also to harvesters in poor rural regions around the globe.
Furth was still in high school when he began working summers at Louis Furth Inc., the spice import business founded by his uncle in New York City in 1941. Reflecting backward from his post today as CEO of the business—since renamed FFF Associates—Furth says the turning point was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when one of the largest markets in the world, the United States, experienced increased immigration, more eating out, and an expanding prepared foods industry.
“People started using what today seem like everyday spices like oregano, garlic, basil, more pepper, a little bit more chili powder, and absolutely more cinnamon,” says Furth.
Italian sauces, in an ever wider and spicier variety, lined American grocery shelves and kitchen cabinets. Then, by the 1980s, Mexican food became mainstream, spreading across the country from the American Southwest, deepening Americans’ taste for spicier cuisine.
According to data compiled by the Department of Agriculture, American consumption of herbs and spices, per capita, has grown from just over a pound in the mid-1960s to more than three-and-a-half pounds today.
But as demand grows in the world’s largest spice market, Furth has undertaken an expansion of his own—not necessarily of volume, but of his corporate mission.
After taking leave of the company in 1991 to become the executive vice president and CEO of the American Spice Trade Association, he returned to the family company in 1994, adding a consulting division. Today, he devotes much of his time working with government and nongovernmental organizations to facilitate the international spice trade in ways that benefit producers—many of them quite small and located in some of the world’s poorest countries—as well as consumers.
Many people don’t realize, Furth says, how many of our spices are harvested by small farmers around the globe. In Grenada, for example—among the major suppliers of nutmeg—nutmeg trees appear most often in small groves in family backyards. “They’re not massive groves like you think of for tree nuts in California,” says Furth. “And this is the case all over the world.”
For the past 10 years, Furth has been working with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Dutch international development organization, SNV, on joint projects in Albania, the source of 75 percent of the world’s sage, as well as a main source of medicinal and other herbs.
Sage is rarely cultivated, but instead grows in the wild. The harvesters are primarily villagers. “They get up very early in the morning and they walk up the mountain, often with a donkey,” says Furth. They pick the herbs which are then collected by aggregators back in the villages.
In the past, neither the gatherers, who are paid by the sack, nor the aggregators, who sell the raw, dirty sage to processors, made out well. “A lot of the Albanian sage was taken to Turkey where there were some very sophisticated cleaning operations. And the Albanians were losing any ability to capture the value-added,” Furth says.
In working with the organizations, Furth hopes to help Albanians, who are much poorer than their Turkish neighbors, keep as much income in Albania as possible, chiefly by developing their capacity to process spices.
“We’re helping with their post-harvesting handling—which is from the time it’s gathered in the mountains to the time it goes to the exporter. This includes making sure the goods are cleaned, handled, and dried properly, and kept free of contamination.”
It’s an especially important development initiative because, says Bernd Fischer, a professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, “agriculture is one of the only sustainable aspects of the Albanian economy.” Fischer, who specializes in the Balkans and advises a number of U.S. government agencies on Albanian affairs, says there are hundreds of projects like the one Furth is working on that contribute to the development of Albania’s predominantly rural population.
For consumers, the benefits are no less important. Spices that aren’t properly handled can contain dirt, twigs, dead insects, animal feces, salmonella or E. coli. Even though spices are used in small quantities and generally cooked at high temperatures, says Furth, when it comes to contamination, “you never want to take a chance.”