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FDA Finds High Rates of Salmonella, Filth in Spices

October 31, 2013

5 Min Read
FDA Finds High Rates of Salmonella, Filth in Spices

WASHINGTONIn response to recent outbreaks of human illness caused by the consumption of Salmonella-contaminated spices in the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) completed a draft risk profile on pathogens and filth in spices. The agency found nearly 7% of spice imports were contaminated with Salmonella, and another 12% contained filth, including insects, rodent hairs and feces.

The risk profile identifies the most commonly occurring microbial hazards and filth in spices and quantifies, where possible, the prevalence and levels of these adulterants at different points along the supply chain. It also identifies potential sources of contamination throughout the farm-to-table food-safety continuum and evaluates the efficacy of current mitigation and control options designed to reduce the public health risk posed by consumption of contaminated spices in the United States.

The studys findings suggest that the presence of pathogens, such as Salmonella, and filth in spices is a systemic challenge. Failures identified in the farm-to-table food-safety system potentially leading to adulteration of consumed spice generally arose from poor/inconsistent application of appropriate preventive controls. The study identified 14 spice/seasoning-associated outbreaks worldwide that occurred from 1973 to 2010, resulting in less than 2,000 reported human illnesses and 128 hospitalizations worldwide.

Microbial pathogens that have been found in spices include Salmonella, Bacillus spp. (including Bacillus cereus), Clostridium perfringens, Cronobacter spp., Shigella and Staphylococcus aureus. Filth adulterants found in spices include insects (live and dead whole insects and insect parts), excrement (animal, bird, and insect), hair (human, rodent, bat, cow, sheep, dog, cat and others), and other materials (decomposed parts, bird barbs, bird barbules, bird feathers, stones, twigs, staples, wood slivers, plastic, synthetic fibers, and rubber bands).

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

Spice imports from Mexico and India have been found to have the highest rates of contamination. Nearly one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India. Approximately 14% of the samples from Mexico contained Salmonella.

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 1% 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.

According to the report, the relatively small number of outbreaks identified may be attributable in part to the application of preventive controls by the spice and food manufacturing industries, including pathogen reduction treatments, and cooking during food preparation. Peoples tendency to eat small amounts of spices with meals generally lowers the probability of illness from contaminated spices relative to similarly contaminated foods consumed in larger amounts. It is also possible that illnesses caused by contaminated spices are underreported, particularly because of challenges related to attribution for minor ingredients in multi-ingredient foods.

FDA has a number of regulatory standards and programs in place that help prevent contaminated spice from reaching consumers, and the agency is taking steps to further strengthen spice safety by increasing inspections of spice manufacturing facilities and implementing some of the options presented in the risk profile.

Additionally, through the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the FDA has proposed a new rule on preventive controls for human food facilities and another on foreign supplier verification programs for importers. The preventive controls rule proposes to require food facilities to put into place preventive controls for those hazards identified by the manufacturer as reasonably likely to occur. The foreign supplier verification rule proposes to require that importers verify that the foods they import are produced using processes and procedures that ensure the same level of safety as food produced in the United States. Both rules hold the potential to improve spice safety.

A report released Jan. 23, 2013, by the US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) revealed the incidences of food adulteration or food fraud" has risen a staggering 60% since 2010. Seafood, clouding agents and lemon juice were among the nearly 800 new records of food fraud" added to the USP Food Fraud Database, which tracks information about foods that are vulnerable to fraudulent manipulation in todays food supply.

The first iteration of the database compiled 1,300 records of food fraud published between 1980 and 2010. (See the Image Gallery: Food SafetyTainted & Adulterated Foods.) The new report increases the total number of records by 60%and consists mostly of newer information published in 2011 and 2012 in both scholarly journals and general media.

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