Saffron, a seasoning spice, is often touted as one of the costliest food products.
And for Ali Hajibi, co-owner of Montreal Middle Eastern grocer Akhavan, it’s been especially pricey. His shipment of $30,000 worth of Iranian saffron has been seized by Canadian Customs.
They have also asked him to sign a letter approving its destruction.
Hajibi says with shipping costs, storage fees and charges for destroying it, last month’s attempt to bring saffron into his two Montreal stores will cost him close to $40,000.
In 2013, the Conservative government imposed sanctions against most goods imported from Iran, although many foods were exempt. The list of cleared food items includes oil seeds and oleaginous fruits, miscellaneous grains, seeds and fruit, industrial or medicinal plants, straw and fodder.
But according to Global Affairs Canada and its enforcement arm, Canada Border Services Agency, saffron and rosewater from Iran are not exempt.
“We didn't understand the law,” says Hajibi. “It says dried fruit, spice and herbs (are exempt). To us, saffron is a spice. Why not (ban) pistachios then?”
Hajibi had its shipment of rosewater stopped last month as well. “They charged us $8,500 for destroying about three palettes, 250 boxes of 24 bottles of 330 ml.” The storage and destruction of seized goods are done by private contractor hired by the government.
The U.S. government has lifted sanctions against Iran, and this week the first shipment of Iranian saffron is expected to be delivered. News reports also mention pistachios, and caviar are now legal to import into the U.S. For foodies, the quality of those Iranian products is unparalleled.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, formerly Foreign Affairs, wrote in an email that Canada is continuing to review its sanctions regime against Iran along with other UN members.
A CBC report this week said the lifting of sanctions would happen “sooner rather than later” so that Canada could take advantage of burgeoning trade opportunities in Iran.
But Global Affairs would not provide a timeline for when Canada would drop sanctions and or say that if the sanctions were lifted, Hajabi could rescue his saffron.
Several stores in Toronto and Ottawa say they have Iranian saffron in stock or do carry it, but are temporarily out of stock.
“I sell pure Iranian organic saffron, six kinds of pistachios, barberries, mulberries, all from Iran,” says the owner of a spice store in Toronto. “No problem. I buy one gram $3 wholesale, retail $7 or $8.”
The owner said he buys it from a “one-man outfit with a cell phone.”
Government officials would not say why saffron is barred nor would they say if or how much saffron or other foods from Iran have been stopped at customs.