Truffles are big business. The tasty fungi are fetching record prices, but in the process they are also attracting criminals looking for greater profits than found in the drug trade, according to a report from CBS's "60 Minutes."
Truffles are "being trafficked like drugs, stolen by thugs, and threatened by inferior imports from China," said correspondent Lesley Stahl on the program that aired Jan. 8.
Black truffles from France cost more than $1,000 a pound. Italian white truffles are even more valuable, bringing in around $3,600 a pound. The price represents not only their rarity but how difficult they are to find, as well as how much haute cuisine diners are willing to pay for just a few truffle shavings on their pasta or burgers.
Truffles grow underground and are usually discovered by the finely tuned noses of trained dogs. (Truffle hunters used to employ pigs for the same task, but the pigs tended to eat their finds, cutting down on profits.) Attempts to cultivate them have not been successful, as the truffles' taste comes from the unique soil and climate of France and Italy.
Stahl joined truffle hunters on the hills of Perugia Province, Italy, where she was accompanied by fur-clad truffle magnate Olga Urbani, whose company controls 70 percent of the world's truffle trade. Urbani called the truffles "black diamonds." One of Urbani's hunters says he values his dog more than his wife.
Unfortunately, truffle supplies are on the decline. Stahl reported that the annual truffle harvest was 2,000 tons a century ago. Today, it is just 30 tons a year. "I wish I had 100 tons a day to make everybody happy," said Urbani.
One of the primary reasons for the increasing rarity of truffles is climate change. The 2003 heat wave in France killed off three-quarters of the country's truffles, and supplies have not recovered. "Other mushrooms that are more adapted to drought beat out the truffle," expert Pierre Sourzat told the AFP news service in December. To help truffles grow, France is planting hundreds of thousands of trees a year, creating a more stable environment for the fungi to grow.
Criminals have taken advantage of the high prices to squeeze the truffle market. Famous French chef "Bruno," who uses five tons of truffles a year, told Stahl that robbers recently stole 200 kilograms of truffles from his restaurant. Other criminals have committed murder over truffles, or stolen valuable truffle-hunting dogs. "60 Minutes" aired footage of back-alley, black-market truffle deals worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, China is making inroads into the truffle market, selling inferior lookalike fungi for $20 to $30 a pound.
"The Chinese truffle is boring ... no taste, no smell," said Bruno; Urbani said they taste like wood. She said that some unscrupulous sellers are also mixing French or Italian and Chinese truffles to increase their profits. The practice was likened to cutting cocaine with flour. Others are mislabeling their products, selling Chinese truffles as French truffles.