Spice Safety

By Dan Burden, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University, djburden@iastate.edu.

Developed October 2013.



spicesAccording to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), increasingly globalized food supply may be resulting in far greater exposure to food-borne illness.  As public-health, university-extension and industry professionals have made great strides in American post-harvest-handling food safety, from the large-scale livestock processor to the farmer’s-market vegetable stand, new threats to public health are arriving from off-shore.  With 15 percent or so of our American food intake originating outside the United States, double what it was ten years ago and compounded by the fact that only 1 to 2 percent of all imports at American ports and borders are inspected; led the FDA to announce this summer that foreign and domestic food safety is now a critical public-health issue.

In July of 2013 in a public address, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, FDA commissioner, estimated that annually, one in six Americans get sick from a food-borne pathogen, 130,000 or more are hospitalized and 3,000 die.  According to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Salmonella is the most common food-borne bacteria, infecting an estimated 1.2 million people a year.  The young, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are at highest risk of dying from Salmonella poisoning.

Undercooked meat is often the culprit in widely publicized cases of food poisoning; but spices used for flavorings have often been overlooked and perhaps are a more insidious threat.  A recent Salmonella outbreak that was linked to imported spice from Turkey.  A forthcoming report from the FDA says that common imported spices, particularly from India and Mexico, are contaminated with salmonella at twice the rate of all other imported foods.

The United States is one of the world’s largest spice importers (326 kilotons), valued at $1.1 billion (2012), according to the Department of Agriculture.  Of those imports, which account for more than 80 percent of the total United States spice supply, 19 percent were from India and 5 percent from Mexico.  In a recent report in The New York Times, out of 20,000 food shipments, seven percent of spices were contaminated with Salmonella.  This is twice the average of all other imported foods.  Approximately 14 percent of samples from Mexico were contaminated, and 9 percent of India's samples contained the bacterium.

The FDA’s, recognition of this critical food safety public-health issue focuses on a problem that is not at all new.  Policy and law-makers are grappling with a situation that has simply resulted from increased American dependence on imported food.  About 15 percent of the food that Americans eat comes from abroad, more than double the amount just 10 years ago, including nearly two-thirds of fresh fruits and vegetables.  And the safety of the foreign and domestic food supply is a critical issue, but one that usually takes back seat to more glamorous “newsworthy” items.

Imported food-borne illness is on the radar with regulatory and oversight groups.  Concern from these groups and the public resulted in the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act that mandated greater testing and oversight; but few of the mandates were enforced until a lawsuit from the Center for Food Safety forced the issue this year.

Currently, the FDA is asking for more resources for the agency since its employees are responsible for auditing newly mandated import records.  The FDA has about 1,600 investigators handling imports of everything from food to drugs to medical devices.  President Obama has requested about $260 million more in his 2014 budget, much of which would go to revamp and expand the system that regulates imports.  Overall, the FDA is responsible for the safety of about 80 percent of the food that Americans consume.  Other responsibility falls to the USDA, which is responsible for meat, poultry and some egg products.

Food-borne illnesses can be so slight as to have almost no effect on an otherwise healthy person to being fatal when particularly virulent organisms or weakened individuals are part of the equation.  With respect to Salmonella, diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps and similar symptoms usually develop 12 to 72 hours after infection and often last four to seven days.  In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary to get the comprehensive treatment necessary to rid the intestines and blood stream of infection.

With as little as 10 bacteria able to inflict serious illness, the FDA rejects any import having any visual evidence of contaminants that suggest microscopic Salmonella contamination could also be present.  However, the reality of the situation is daunting.  At current inspection levels, FDA inspection and oversight staff is only able to visually inspect less than 2 percent of all imported foods and performs lab tests at American ports and borders on only a tiny fraction of that percentage.  Aside from spices, seafood also is an area of concern with only a small percentage being inspected and almost half of that being rejected for the presence of banned antibiotics, carcinogenic chemicals and similar materials.

The potential impact of the problem can be considered from the perspectives of the almost universal use of imported spice, as well as the impact that can result from a single contamination event.  As summarized in a 2012 study in Food Research International, more than 1,700 cases of food poisoning have been linked to spices from basil to black, white, and red pepper.  In 2009 and 2010, 272 people in 44 states were infected with Salmonella from a pepper mixture used in a processed meat product.  In June, 2013, the CDC reported a Salmonella outbreak linked to a tahini-sesame paste.  This commercial product imported from Turkey sickened 16 people across the U.S., and killed one person before it was recalled.  Additionally, FDA testing has found that contaminated spices tend to have many more distinct types of Salmonella than those found in contaminated meat.

Commonly sold in grocery stores across the United States, the following herbs and spices are frequently found to be contaminated: coriander, oregano, basil, sesame seed, curry powder, cumin, and black pepper.  Of these imported shipments, coriander had the highest contamination rate, 15 percent of import shipments contained Salmonella; and 12 percent of oregano and basil shipments contained Salmonella.

The Salmonella bacterium is hardy; freezing usually has no effect on it.  However, Salmonella poisoning can be simply prevented by altering food-preparation techniques.  Heat not only kills the bacteria, but enhances the flavors of dried spices.  So, incorporating spices early in a dish’s preparation and then simmering the food and spices at 150 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit will eliminate the threat.  For other dishes, grinding the spices and lightly toasting them in a pan will release their essential oils, improve the flavor and eliminate any bacterial contamination.  Other ingredients can then be added to finish the dish.  Spices should never be the final-step addition to previously cooked food prior to serving the meal.  This is a great way to introduce or reintroduce Salmonella or other harmful disease-causing pathogens to the dish.

In the wake of public exposure to this issue in the national and international media, to preserve their nationally important high-value export markets, the Mexican and Indian governments have initiated serious steps to clean-up and screen their products before they leave the country.  Importers are stepping up monitoring and providing in-country food-safety education initiatives that stress improved post-harvest handling and drying techniques, as well as sterilization treatments.

For agricultural and aquaponic herb and spice producers in the United States, public discussion of the food-safety concerns associated with imported herbs and spices could be an important marketing strength for domestically produced products that have seen the proper preparation and post-harvest-handling care and attention.  Another reason to “buy local,” but only if strict attention is given to preventing any possibility of food-borne illness and the work that went into doing so is communicated to the consumer across all levels of the value chain.

References & Resources

Buzby, J. C., L. Unnevehr, and D. Roberts.  Food Safety and Imports: An Analysis of FDA Import Refusal Reports.  USDA-ERS Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-39) 47 pages, September 2008. 

Food Safety in the Home.  U. S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) on-line resource with links to current situation reports and background reports on past outbreaks of food-borne illness.   

FoodSafety.Gov.  Public gateway to food safety information. 

HACCP Food Safety Training and Certification. Online information and training. 

Harris, G.  Salmonella in Spices Prompts Changes in Farming; The New York Times; Published: August 27, 2013.

Krans, B.  Salmonella Found in Common Kitchen Spices.  Yahoo Health News; Wednesday, Aug 28, 2013.  

Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Montevideo and Salmonella Mbandaka Infections Linked to Tahini Sesame Paste (Final Update). U. S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC); United States, June 21, 2013
Salmonella Montevideo Infections Associated with Salami Products Made with Contaminated Imported Black and Red Pepper. U. S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC); United States, July 2009 to April 2010 

Tavernise, S.  F.D.A. Says Importers Must Audit Food Safety. The New York Times; Published: July 26, 2013. 

Zweifel, C., R. Stephan. Spices and herbs as source of Salmonella-related foodborne diseases.  Food Research International; 02/2012; 45(2):765–769.  

USDA-ERS Food Safety Report & Policy Portal.