Think your kitchen pantry full of exotic spices is safe for consumption? Think again.
A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report released October 30 states that seven percent of imported spices were tainted with Salmonella. What’s more, these spices were twice as likely to be contaminated as other food sources. And the problem is growing.
The FDA report was precipitated by 14 spice-related outbreaks that began in 1973, mostly affecting children. The countries involved in the outbreaks were Mexico, India, Thailand and Vietnam; the tainted spices included red and black pepper. These outbreaks demonstrate inconsistencies in following regulations within the international food trade.
Between the years 1998 and 2004, imported shipments of spices (including flavors and salts) accounted for 3.8 percent of shipments being refused by the FDA due to high levels of contamination. Compare this with 20.6 percent for vegetables and 11.7 percent for fruit, and it is evident that spice contamination is becoming a bigger problem. Due to the circuitous nature of spice importing, it has been difficult to pin down the specific sources of these contaminations.
Compared to meat and vegetable contaminations, however, a Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) Constituent Update states, “People’s 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 … illnesses caused by contaminated spices are underreported, particularly because of challenges related to attribution for minor ingredients in multi-ingredient foods.”
Because Salmonella lives in animals, insects and non-host environments, the bacteria can survive for prolonged periods, going from host to non-host without difficulty. What, then, does this mean for spices? The FDA reports elaborates: “A direct consequence of Salmonella’s ability to survive in non-host environments is that it is widely dispersed in nature and that when Salmonella-contaminated material (animate or inanimate) comes in contact with the spice source plant or spice before human consumption, it may be a potential source of viable bacterial contamination.” Many spices are dry so this means Salmonella can be present in spices for a long time. The long-term effects of such contamination remain to be seen.
What can you do to limit your exposure to Salmonella from consumption of imported spices? One way would be to add spices to your food before cooking. Maintaining a clean kitchen and handling raw meats and spices appropriately may reduce your risk of contracting a foodborne illness. Buying organic spices is another option but it depends on whether you think the higher cost would be worth it. It’s worth mentioning that the risk of contracting Salmonella from imported spices is still lower than from meats, fruits and vegetables.
By Juana Poareo