WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said
that almost 7 percent of imported spices over a three-year period were
contaminated with salmonella.
In a report released Oct. 30, the FDA said testing of
imported spices between 2007 and 2010 showed that spices were twice as likely as
other inspected foods to be contaminated with the pathogen. More than 80
different types of salmonella were detected.
The study looked at spices imported from several countries,
with many of the shipments coming from India, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam.
The agency decided to study the issue as several
spice-related outbreaks have caused illnesses around the globe. In 2009 and
2010, black pepper and red pepper from India, Vietnam and China used in salami
caused hundreds of illnesses.
The FDA said there have been 14 known outbreaks around the
world since 1973, causing almost 2,000 illnesses, many of which were in
The FDA, which monitors food and drug safety for American
consumers, said that during the three-year period, 749 shipments of spice were
refused entry into the U.S. because of salmonella contamination, while 238 other
shipments were denied because of the presence of what the FDA calls “filth” —
insects, excrement, hair or other materials.
The agency said some of the spices that were found
contaminated at the border were later cooked or treated to eliminate possible
pathogens, so much of the salmonella was likely gone by the time the spices were
eaten. The agency also noted that the amount of spice generally eaten at a meal
is small, meaning people have less of a chance of getting sick from a
contaminated spice than a contaminated fruit or vegetable, for example.
Still, the agency has targeted spices because their route to
a diner’s plate is so circuitous and the potential for contamination comes at
many different points. Most all of the spices eaten in the U.S. are imported,
and most come from small farms in a variety of countries that have different
levels of food safety oversight.
The report said spices are produced by a wide variety of
agricultural practices, including “on very small farms where farm animals are
used to plow, crops are harvested by hand, and spices are dried in open air.”
All of these practices have potential for animal, bird or human contamination.
Off the farm, spices from the small farms are often
combined, sold to exchanges or packing companies, or stored for years,
increasing the chances that they are temporarily in unclean circumstances.
Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, said
the agency is “not recommending that consumers stay away from spices,” though
the chances of someone getting sick can be reduced by adding spices to food
before it is cooked.
Taylor said that new food safety rules that aim to make
imported and domestic food safer on farms and in processing facilities should
help reduce spice contamination. Those rules include regulations that will
require food importers to better understand where the food they bring into the
country has been.
According to the study, much of the knowledge and technology
to reduce contamination exist, but are often not used. It surmised that problems
arose because of generally unhygienic conditions, including the failure to limit
animal and insect access to food and not taking steps like irradiation to kill
any potential pathogens.
The report said that better training across the spice supply
chain would be one way to reduce illnesses.
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