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Sugar and spice, it turns out, are not filled with everything nice, at least not in the USA. The Food and Drug Administration recently released a long report of bacteria, fecal matter, and even office supplies found in imported spices. Here's what to do.

Every year, the average American consumes about 3-1/2 pounds (1600 grams) of spices in food. The Food and Drug Administration recently release a report finding that 12% of those spices are contaminated.

What kinds of harmful debris find their way into the spice cabinet? The FDA reported that:
  • Insect parts,
  • Whole insects,
  • Rat hairs,
  • Bird feathers,
  • Human, rat, mouse, bat, cow, dog, cat, and sheep feces, among others,
  • Stones,
  • Twins,
  • Splinters of wood,
  • Animal parts,
  • Whole birds,
  • Synthetic fabrics,
  • Staples, and
  • Rubber bands

have been found in imported spices, not to mention Salmonella, Bacillus cereus, Clostrium perfringens, Cronobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, and diarrhea inducing Shigella have been found growing in product.

The Food and Drug Administration called spice contamination a "systemic challenge," but the problems seem to start in warehouses and packing companies rather than on farms, primarily in India and in Mexico.

How Big a Problem is Infection from Spices?

The Centers for Disease Control report that there are 1.2 million cases of Salmonella in the United States every year.

In the last 40 years, only 2,000 cases, out of perhaps 50 million, have been conclusively linked to contaminated spices. But since people who get food poisoning often forget to consider the spices, the Food and Drug Administration believes that the problem may be seriously under-reported.

Sometimes contamination of spices defies logical methods to control it.

The curcumin-rich spice turmeric, for instance, is loaded with healthful antioxidants. When companies in India tried using radiation to kill weevils that live in the root, the tiny bugs simply ate more turmeric and multiplied even more than usual because the radiation killed the bacteria that might otherwise infect them.

What Is the FDA Doing to Protect American Spice Supplies?

New legislation gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to stop imports of spices if there is even a suspicion of contamination. The FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg had planned to travel to India to discuss methods of reducing spice contamination with Indian trade officials in October, but the government shutdown forced the cancellation of her trip.

In the meantime, Indian spice producers, who supply 25% of American spices and food coloring, are urgently meeting with farmers and spice brokers to stop contamination that could get their products banned.

What Can You Do to Prevent Food Poisonings from Spices?

Don't start throwing out all your spices just yet. But do start using spices in cooked food rather than raw. It is especially necessary to be careful with:

  • Any spices that have become damp or clumpy in storage (except salt). Moisture keeps Salmonella alive, especially in black pepper.
  • Beware of salami imported from Asia. Both red and black pepper on Asia, although not Italian, salami have been definitely linked to food poisoning.
  • Beware of moist or clumpy paprika, which also has been linked to specific outbreaks of food poisoning.

If a spice is dry, and flows freely, it's almost always safe for use in cooking. Any spice that you could plant in your garden, such as fresh ginger root, also is likely to need no more than a quick rinse under tap water, making sure to clean both sides (top and bottom). Garlic, red pepper, and mustard seed sold in the USA usually come from American suppliers who are more closely regulated and far less likely to produce a contaminated product.

  • Kong W, Wei R, Logrieco AF, Wei J, Wen J, Xiao X, Yang M. Occurrence of toxigenic fungi and determination of mycotoxins by HPLC-FLD in functional foods and spices in China markets.Food Chem. 2014 Mar 1.146:320-6. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2013.09.005. Epub 2013 Sep 13.PMID: 24176349.
  • Van Doren JM, Neil KP, Parish M, Gieraltowski L, Gould LH, Gombas KL. Foodborne illness outbreaks from microbial contaminants in spices, 1973-2010.Food Microbiol. 2013 Dec
  • 36(2):456-64. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2013 Apr 28. PMID: 24010629.
  • Photo courtesy of Tim Fields by Flickr :

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