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Indian spice traders guarded over foreign food giants in their market

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Bob Moon: India is fighting to remain a hub for the global spice industry. Its spice trading dates back to the Greek and Roman empires. And its popularity hasn’t always been a blessing for India, what with Portuguese, Dutch and British colonials often fighting over it. Now, some there are concerned about foreign companies muscling in on the India’s lucrative industry. Raymond Thibodeaux reports from New Delhi.

Raymond Thibodeaux: This Delhi spice bazaar, known as Khari Baoli, is one of Asia’s biggest spice markets. Shoppers browse among burlap sacks brimming with cumin and bright-orange turmeric powders, curries and black pepper — which explains the sneezing as people walk by. Varun Grover owns a spice shop and an exporting business here. He says India’s love of spices runs deep.

Varun Grover: Yeah, it’s a source of national pride. Indian spices are the best in all of the world. So no other countries can come and take over it.

But the biggest food companies in the U.S. and Europe are eying India’s market, including McCormick. The Maryland-based spice giant is buying a big stake in an Indian company called Eastern Condiments, mainly for a bigger foothold in India’s domestic market. Alan Wilson is McCormick’s CEO:

Alan Wilson: It’s the largest market in the world for spice production and consumption. We’ve been sourcing from India for over a hundred years, so we have a long relationship there.

But Indian spice traders like Grover are worried. They don’t like foreign companies muscling in on their turf. Some exporters say it’s unfair since Indian spice merchants often have trouble accessing foreign markets, especially in the U.S.

Wilson: We have expertise in selling in those markets. We can certainly help them with the quality expectations and access to those markets.

That’s exactly what Shri Kumar hopes for. He’s deputy director of India’s Spice Board, which has been trying to attract and partner with foreign companies.

Shri Kumar: The Indian companies can have more access in foreign markets. And similarly the foreign markets, they can promote their brands in India also. So it’s a mutually beneficial thing.

Kumar say it’s hard to know who benefits more. But one thing is certain: despite the global economic slowdown, Indian spice exports are on the rise. Last year, $1.2 billion worth of spices were shipped out of the country, an all-time high.

In New Delhi, I’m Raymond Thibodeaux for Marketplace.

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