The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade

The underlying problem is that there’s simply not enough European truffle supply to meet demand. France produced around 1,000 tons of black truffle in the early 1800s, but that number has fallen steeply to around 30 or 40 tons today, according to Le Tacon. Experts like him believe climate change has contributed to this decline. Lower rainfall means less water is showering trees and soil, where fungi flourish. Increasing temperatures have spurred surface evaporation, meaning even less water is reaching tree roots. In addition, farmers often fail to regularly prune and irrigate truffle orchards. Le Tacon is working to change this state of affairs, but it takes 10 to 15 years before inoculated tree seedlings bloom with fungi. “It takes a long time to invert the curve,” Le Tacon said.

The lagging production has forced French and even Italian suppliers to import truffles from outside Europe, mainly from China. About 30 or 40 tons are imported from China to France each year, Le Tacon estimates. A Chinese truffle will only go for about $70 or $80, whereas a black winter truffle from France may sell for 10 times that amount to a wholesaler like Balestra’s Sabatino Tartufi. The two types of truffles are almost indistinguishable, even for experts. “Really, I cannot make the distinction between Chinese black truffles and Périgord black truffles,” Le Tacon explained. “To recognize them, we have to use molecular tools.” He added that the flavor is also nearly identical, but that’s only if the truffles are eaten fresh. “Maybe the intensity of the flavor is less with the Chinese truffle, but [it is] really difficult to [tell] the difference,” he said.

In the southern Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, according to Le Tacon, who has traveled there, truffles grow naturally in millions of hectares of wild forest. Since trees there stand far apart, and goats graze shrubbery and small plants, abundant rainfall can reach the open soil and truffles with relative ease. The supply is so vast that low-paid workers use rakes to pull truffles out of the ground, no dogs necessary. The relatively high supply and low labor investment combine to lower the price of Chinese truffles.

Some truffle snobs maintain that the taste and smell of the black Chinese truffle is inferior to its European counterpart, but that’s not because the Chinese variety is categorically deficient. The real culprit is travel time. Truffles are extremely perishable and the delivery channels from China to Europe are notoriously slow, which means the tubers often arrive in poor condition. “They smell very badly,” Le Tacon said. “Sometimes, they are rotten.”

Nonetheless, Chinese truffles are occasionally mixed in with European batches and fraudulently sold as Europe’s finest because they are so hard to tell apart without microscopic scrutiny. Often, the problem is not discovered until a chef comes across them during a taste or smell test in the kitchen. “You only realize that when you start to slice them, then you notice that one has a lot of flavor, and one doesn’t,” Trabocchi said.

Cardoon with white truffle and pear at the Guido restaurant in northwestern Italy (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

Passing Chinese truffles off as European has become so pervasive that the practice has even come across the desks of the folks at Interpol, the international police organization. “This is a trend, for sure, that has been identified immediately, from the very first operation that we carried out,” said Interpol criminal intelligence officer Simone Di Meo, referring to Operation Opson, a task force focused on tracking substandard and counterfeit foods. The agency, which helps law enforcement outfits around the world share criminal intelligence, has recruited Asian partners like South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines to the project, but Chinese authorities have shown no interest in cooperating.

“Information from the private sector should be followed up by [information from Chinese] police officers and translated into police knowledge with seizures, with arrests, and so on,” Di Meo explained. (Enlisting the private sector in investigating food crimes isn’t always easy either, since companies are often not willing to share intelligence, fearing brand destruction if the information goes public.)

Interpol and Europol, the European Union’s police organization, paired up to start Opson in 2011 after reports to the agencies about food-related crime reached a critical mass. Moving on intelligence about erroneous geographical labels, expired foods repackaged to appear fresh, and other frauds, agents expected to find criminals focusing on conventional brand-name products. To their surprise, the world’s more lavish victuals and spirits were being manipulated as well. In addition to hauls that included “30 tons of fake tomato sauce, around 77,000 kg of counterfeit cheese,” and “nearly 30,000 counterfeit candy bars,” Interpol also seized large quantities of fake caviar and truffles. During his work on the beat, Di Meo has also come across fake champagne, Prosciutto di Parma, and mozzarella di bufala, and received key intelligence from companies like Prosecco.

In the time that Opson has been in operation, French customs agents have discovered and shut down a series of seedy websites that peddled large quantities of illegitimate “French” truffles of unknown origin at competitive prices to international restaurants and customers around the holidays. “Both for caviar and for truffles, it was the same modus operandi, actually,” Di Meo said. “It was presented as a very high, top-quality product, produced in some very renowned areas for products. And sold at high price. Of course, the high price was lower than the price for a genuine product, but was still high. So, we are not finding truffles or caviar sold at €10 per kilo. It was not €1,000 per kilo, but it was maybe €700.”

Determining whether fraud has taken place usually involves assessing the item’s quality and origins, which can make it difficult to trace. “The problem is that we are still trying to identify if there’s an involvement of criminal networks in this particular production, or it’s just, let’s say, someone working on an individual basis that’s trying to make money with these particular products,” Di Meo said. According to the Interpol official, caviar fraud has penetrated “official distribution channels” like supermarkets. This and the sophistication of the truffle websites may indicate the presence of organized crime. It’s too early to know for sure, but Interpol suspects that some of the millions of euros made from the illicit food trade are used by criminal networks to fund human and drug trafficking.

With low penalties and little regulatory scrutiny, the shadow truffle trade has room to expand. Unless there is a serious threat to public health and safety—like a recent case of Czech vodka that killed 20 drinkers with its dose of methanol—the criminals identified with Interpol’s assistance are often released by the relevant national authorities without much more than a slap on the wrist. “The opportunities to be identified are low, and the opportunities to get money, to get margins, are high,” Di Meo said.

With threats at almost every corner of the market, Trabocchi and other truffle bon vivants must continue to evaluate the product methodically, peering intently at its texture and carefully inhaling. Then, and only then, can they take that first bite.

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