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Imported Spices Carry Salmonella Risk Says FDA

WASHINGTON—The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon release an analysis of imported spices as a “potent source of salmonella poisoning," according to an article in The New York Times. In a study of more than 20,000 food shipments, FDA found nearly 7 percent of spice lots were contaminated with salmonella, twice the average of all other imported foods. Some 15% of coriander and 12% of oregano and basil shipments were contaminated, with high contamination levels also found in sesame seeds, curry powder and cumin. Four percent of black pepper shipments were contaminated.

Each year, 1.2 million people in the United States become sick from salmonella, one of the most common causes of food-borne illness. More than 23,000 are hospitalized and 450 die.

Mexico and India had the highest share of contaminated spices. Approximately 14% of the samples from Mexico contained salmonella, the study found, a result Mexican officials disputed.

India’s exports were the second-most contaminated at approximately 9%, but India ships nearly four times the amount of spices to the United States that Mexico does, so its contamination problems are particularly worrisome, officials said. Almost one-fourth of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India.

The findings were the result of a three-year study FDA officials recently published in the journal Food Microbiology, and form an important part of the spice analysis that will be made public “soon," agency officials said. (Food Microbiology, 2013; 34(2):239-251)

“Salmonella is a widespread problem with respect to imported spices," Michael Taylor, deputy FDA commissioner for food, said in an interview. “We have decided that spices are one of the significant issues we need to be addressing right now."

FDA tests found contaminated spices tend to have many more salmonella types than is typically found on contaminated meat. The agency, which visually inspects less than one percent of all imported foods and performs lab tests on a tiny fraction, rejects imports with any signs of salmonella contamination because as few as 10 cells have been shown to cause serious illness.

Spices as a source of food-borne illness typically are difficult to trace, given the long shelf life of spices and seasonings, and the fact that salmonella can survive indefinitely on dried spices. Sophisticated DNA sequencing of salmonella types is finally allowing food officials to pinpoint spices as a cause of repeated outbreaks, including one in 2010 involving black and red pepper that sickened more than 250 people in 44 states. After a 2009 outbreak linked to white pepper, an inspection found that salmonella had colonized much of the Union City, Calif., spice processing facility at the heart of the outbreak.

One effective method of killing pathogens on spices is irradiation, however, according to Steve Markus, director of food safety, Sterigenics Inc., Oakbrook, IL, this treatment is utilized most commonly on spices intended for industrial use, but not on spices destined for U.S. retail sales direct to consumers, meaning about half the country's spices are irradiated to kill pathogens.

"Irradiation requires labeling, according to FDA regulations, and the majority of retail customer prefer not to label if they don't have to." Markus continued, "Once consumers have a background on what irradiation is, I believe they would accept it. Irradiation is the best technology to process spices and other food ingredients. It utilizes high energy and penetrates the entire product, disrupting the DNA in pathogens such as salmonella." He stated further that this process has no effect on the potency or taste of the spice and has undergone extensive research and testing by FDA over the last thirty years.

The U.S. is one of the world’s largest spice importers, bringing in 326 metric tons in 2012 valued at $1.1 billion, according to the Department of Agriculture. Of those imports, which account for more than 80% of the total United States spice supply, 19% came from India and 5% from Mexico.

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