By Jenny Cuffe
File On 4, BBC Radio 4
In Britain, a string of food products have been withdrawn because of fears over possible risks from cancer-causing additives but, as Jenny Cuffe reveals, it is the farmers in the spice fields of India who are the trade's real victims.
Rajina Sayer is one of the chilli farmers unable to cover his costs
In temperatures of over 45 degrees, 80 year-old Rajima sits under an asbestos roof preparing chillies for export to Britain.
For eight hours at a stretch her aching fingers pluck the stalks from the red chilli pods, releasing a pungent dust that fills her nose and throat making her cough and sneeze.
For this, she earns 30 rupees, the equivalent of 40 pence, or less than a third of the cost of a small jar of chilli powder in a British supermarket. Rajima and her 50 co-workers are the hidden face of India's spice trade.
K. Sreedhar, manager of Cochin Spices, acknowledges they are exploited and worries about the long term effect on their health but says he cannot afford to pay them more.
As an exporter, he is one link in a chain of middlemen, each squeezed by the market to cut costs. He says he has described the reality of these women's working conditions to visitors from importing countries but no-one is prepared to pay an extra rupee.
The recent food scare in Europe about spices adulterated with the carcinogenic Sudan colouring has contributed to a sense of gloom in India's spice market.
The Indian Spices Board blames a couple of rogue traders in Mumbai and has set up a stringent regime to test exports for contaminants but it will take time to re-establish trust.
In the mean time, unseasonal rain earlier in the year has spoiled the quality of the chilli crop and farmers in Andhra Pradesh are losing out to competition from neighbouring states and countries like China.
Watching his produce weighed at Warangal market, one farmer complains that the 800 rupees he's getting for each 40 kilo sack is too little to cover the growing costs.
"I took huge loans for agricultural investment - mostly pesticides," he says. "Now there will be no alternative for me but to commit suicide".
It is not an empty threat. According to state records, 4,500 farmers have killed themselves in the past seven years, driven to despair by poor harvests and financial worries, and that figure would be far higher if other family members were included.
Global prices of pepper have fallen
80 percent of the population in Andhra Pradesh earns a living from the land.
Many of them are already at the bottom of India's complex social system, poor and illiterate, and they have put their faith in cash crops - borrowing heavily to buy pesticides and fertilisers in the hope of quick returns.
The epidemic of suicide started with cotton farmers but it is now spread to spice growers. Ironically, most die by swallowing the pesticides that have helped get them into debt.
Rajeshwari's husband Ravindra was the first of three farmers in their village to commit suicide. She had known he was in trouble when angry moneylenders started coming to the house but had no idea he was planning to take his own life.
Then one day he left for the fields at 7 o'clock in the morning, swallowed a bottle of pesticide and was dead by the time his relatives found him.
The 25 year-old widow now works as an agricultural labourer to feed her four children but is still being hounded for the debt. She says other villagers are too poor to help her and although she has written to the Chief Minister, Rajesekhara Reddy, she has had no reply.
Mr Reddy's Government came to power a year ago promising to relieve the plight of farmers. He has provided them with free electricity and set up several irrigation schemes but this has not satisfied spice farmers' representatives who believe the best solution would be to guarantee a minimum price at market.
They also say that a six-month moratorium on debt repayment has had little or no effect, since most farmers rely on private moneylenders who charge high rates of interest and state banks are refusing to extend the credit they need to plant the next crop.
The chain of dealers, commissioning agents, processors and exporters in the spice trade act as a buffer between British food manufacturers and supermarkets and poor agricultural labourers in Andhra Pradesh.
But Murali, director of Modern Architects for Rural India, an organisation supporting farmers in the Warangal district, says this is no excuse for ignorance.
"I think consumers in the developed world, as well as big trading companies, should understand the kind of crisis and trauma the producers are going through.
"Things are fine at your end - you are getting good quality produce at low price, but what is happening to the producers?
Why are they committing suicide? We should be sensitive to these issues and initiate action."
File On 4: BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 7 June, 2005 at 2000 BST, and repeated on Sunday 12 June, 2005 at 1700 BST.