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Spices can be a source of salmonella poisoning. Harvesting and preserving methods are typically at fault.

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Spices: A surprising source of food-borne illness

  • Article by: GARDINER HARRIS
  • New York Times
  • September 9, 2013 - 3:18 PM

Spices grown in India’s mist-shrouded Western Ghats have fueled wars, fortunes and even the discovery of continents, and for thousands of years farmers harvested them in the same traditional ways. Until now.

Science has revealed what ancient kings and sultans never knew: Instead of improving health, spices sometimes make people very sick, so Indian government officials are quietly pushing some of the most far-reaching changes ever in the way farmers pick, dry and thresh their rich bounty.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will soon release a comprehensive analysis that pinpoints imported spices, found in just about every kitchen in the Western world, as a surprisingly potent source of salmonella poisoning.

In a study of more than 20,000 food shipments, the food agency found that nearly 7 percent of spice lots were contaminated with salmonella, twice the average of all other imported foods. About 15 percent of coriander and 12 percent 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 sources of food-borne illness. More than 23,000 are hospitalized and 450 die. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps that begin 12 to 36 hours after infection and can last three to five days. Death can result when infection spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream and affects vital organs. Infants and older people are most at risk.

“If there’s an outbreak and we’re trying to find the food [responsible], most are looking at the main ingredients. But no one is looking at what spices are in that food,” said Ted Labuza, professor of food science and engineering at the University of Minnesota. He says he’s been talking about the risk of salmonella-tainted spices in his classes for decades.

Tracking the problem

Mexico and India had the highest share of contaminated spices. About 14 percent 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 percent, 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. Nearly one-quarter 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 by the FDA.

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

Westerners are particularly vulnerable to contaminated spices because pepper and other spices are added at the table, so bacterial hitchhikers are consumed live and unharmed. Bacteria do not survive high temperatures, so contaminated spices present fewer problems when added during cooking, as is typical in the cuisine of India and most other Asian countries.

The U of M’s Labuza recommends buying spices from companies that use pasteurizing techniques. For all spices, he said, heating them while cooking at a temperature above 149 degrees should kill any organisms and make them safe.

McCormick & Co., a large spice and herb company based in Maryland, posted a statement last week on its website addressing the salmonella issue. Part of it read: “Whether they’re grown in the United States or other parts of the world, McCormick exercises the same high level of quality control throughout our supply chain — including several million ingredient analyses each year and a natural steam pasteurization process.”

“McCormick’s quality commitment starts as soon as we take possession of the products,” Jim Lynn, director of corporate communications, said in an interview.

Pepper is a problem

In India, the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of spices, government officials are taking Washington’s concerns seriously.

“The world wants safe spices, and we are committed to making that happen,” said A. Jayathilak, chairman of the Spices Board of India, a government agency that regulates and promotes spices.

FDA tests found that contaminated spices tend to have many more salmonella types than are typically found on contaminated meat. Illnesses caused by spices are hard to trace. When asked what might have made them sick, people rarely think to mention adding pepper to a salad.

But 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.

Safer processes

On a tour through a tropical landscape teeming with pepper and cardamom farms, rubber plantations, tea estates and wild elephants, Indian spice officials showed some voluntary changes they are pushing.

Not so long ago, pepper farmers almost universally dried the seeds on bamboo mats or dirt floors and then gathered them for manual threshing. Dirt, dung and salmonella were simply part of the harvest. Now, spice farmers boil their harvest in water to clean the kernels, speed drying and encourage a uniform color. They are then placed on tarps spread over a concrete slab with nets above to prevent contamination from bird droppings.

The spices board underwrites a third of the cost of concrete slabs, tarps and mechanical threshers, and since most farms are smaller than an acre, it has organized growers’ cooperatives to pool facilities. Board officials recently attended FDA training seminars in Maryland.

Government officials in India emphasized that spices slated for export are often treated to kill any bacteria. Such treatments include steam-heating, irradiation or ethylene oxide gas. But FDA inspectors have found high levels of salmonella contamination in shipments said to have received such treatments, documents show. Much of the contaminated pepper in the 2010 outbreak had been treated with steam and ethylene oxide and had been certified as tested and safe, officials said.

 

Staff writer Allie Shah contributed to this report.

 

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