With the release of FDA’s Risk Analysis of Imported Spices document, the vast majority of news outlets released similar eye catching headlines stating ‘12% of Imported Spice Contaminated’.
Should consumers worry when they are putting pepper on their hamburger, pizza, or as for me, everything – NO, there is essentially no risk when purchasing branded spices from the grocery store.
From a consumer standpoint, are these news articles misleading? – while it is correct in that imported spices sampled by FDA do have contaminates, it is misleading in that FDA was evaluating spices at the point of entry and not at spices at the supermarket. The branded spices that the consumer purchases has been treated and then tested for safety by processors such as McCormick.
The FDA data was based on bulk imported product at the point of entry. Companies purchasing these products for sale will treat before packaging. As posted on McCormick’s website as well as detailed in the NPR piece below, McCormick who has been importing spices for more than a century, has had little to no issues. This is spice companies, including McCormick, clean and treat their spices to eliminate pathogens such as Salmonella. Then those spices are extensively tested to verify safety.
But the report poses an important risk to consider for food companies who are directly importing spices, especially for use in applications where these spices are applied to RTE product without any further processing. In these cases, spices treated oversees may not have the level of safety needed for application, especially in to RTE applications – whether the foreign supplier does not adequately treat/clean the spice, or the spice is contaminated after treatment. Foodborne disease outbreaks have occurred in a few instances when food companies have used contaminated imported spices on RTE spices. They failed to verify safety of those spices before using. Examples – salami with Salmonella contaminated pepper and snack chips with a contaminated seasoning.
Filth taints 12 percent of imported food spices, FDA reports
By Anna Edney and Bloomberg News, Published: November 4
Insect fragments and animal hairs taint 12 percent of imported spices, the Food and Drug Administration said last week.
The FDA said it looked at the safety of spices after outbreaks of illness involving the seasonings. The agency also found pathogens in the spices, including salmonella, and suggested that the spice industry look at training that stresses preventive controls.
“Nearly all of the insects found in spice samples were stored product pests, indicating inadequate packing or storage conditions,” the draft report said. “The presence of rodent hair without the root . . . is generally indicative of contamination by rodent feces.”
The FDA study identified 14 outbreaks worldwide from 1973 to 2010 that involved spices and that resulted in 2,000 people reporting illnesses. The small number of outbreaks in contrast to the high prevalence of filth and bacteria may be a result of people using a small amount on their food or cooking the spices, as well as safety measures taken by the industry, the agency said.
The FDA sampled 2,844 imported dry-spice shipments from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2009 and found that about 7 percent tested positive for salmonella, twice the rate of other FDA-regulated food products. The agency found the highest prevalence of salmonella in leaf-based seasonings such as basil and oregano, and identified Mexico as the country with the highest percentage of exports of contaminated spices, followed by India.
The United States is one of the largest importers of spices, with more than 80 percent of its supply provided by other countries, the FDA said.
About 400 Americans die from salmonella poisoning each year, and 42,000 U.S. cases are reported annually, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the actual number of cases may be about 29 times higher. The infection can cause diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
About 3.4 percent of the 17,508 shipments of other imported food tested positive in the FDA’s sampling. The prevalence of tainted spices is about the same as the agency found 30 years ago in a smaller sampling.
The FDA published the data on salmonella contamination in the journal Food Microbiology a year ago and is now warning consumers about the risk. The agency called the findings “surprising” because spices have a low water content compared with other foods.
McCormick, the largest U.S. seller of flavor products by revenue, posted a statement online about the quality of its spices and herbs.
“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,” the company said.
Red and black pepper intended for use in Italian deli meats were implicated in a 2010 salmonella outbreak that affected 272 people in 44 states and the District, according to the CDC. Pepper falls under the “fruit” category of seasonings, as does cumin and mustard.
Fruit spices were preceded by leaf and root seasonings in prevalence of salmonella. Turmeric and ginger are examples of root spices. Bark or flower spices such as cinnamon and saffron had the lowest levels of salmonella prevalence.
Almost 9 percent of 1,057 spice shipments from India were contaminated with salmonella, the FDA said, compared with 14 percent of 136 shipments from Mexico. Canada came in with the lowest salmonella presence, at less than 1 percent of its 110 shipments.
— Bloomberg News
NPR – The Salt
A Spice Buyer On Why Pepper Is Dirty, And How It Gets Clean
by Nancy Shute
November 01, 201312:57 PM
This week's news that the Food and Drug Administration found that 12 percent of spices imported to the U.S. are contaminated was a little disheartening.
As the FDA reported, all kinds of nasty stuff hitch a ride with spices into the country — from insects to animal excrement to pathogens. The agency looked closely at pepper and sesame seeds, but says this is an issue with lots of other spices, too.
After spices are harvested from plants, they're often laid on the ground to dry, as we reported in August. Salmonella comes from birds and other animals, so the animals are getting into the spices somewhere in picking, drying, processing or storage.
We called up Al Goetze, who has been a spice buyer for McCormick & Company for 30 years, to find out how spices get so filthy. And of course we wanted to know what the world's largest spice buyer is doing about the problem.
Goetze had returned from a buying trip to India's Western Ghats. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
The FDA found things like rodent hair and insect parts in the spices they tested. Are there ways to keep that stuff out of spices?
Like all agricultural commodities, there is a level of filth that is introduced to the product at harvest time, drying activity and in storage. This is particularly true of spices and herbs grown in the developing countries. Many of the contaminants are introduced to the products from field insects and rodents. Also dirt, stones and other plant matter are picked up with the spices and herbs at time of harvest. During sun drying on tarps or concrete yards, more foreign matter and pathogens can contaminate the products. Improper storage conditions can lead to storage insect and/or rodent infestations.
All of our shippers we work with do some level of rudimentary cleaning to ensure our raw materials meet FDA import [laws]. We then further clean the spices and herbs in our main milling center in the U.S.
The FDA says it also found salmonella in 7 percent of the spices it tested. Did that surprise you?
clear to me that [these contaminated spices] weren't correctly sterilized at the source. And in processing in the U.S. they probably got recontaminated. Some people think just because someone has steamed or treated it overseas, you bring it in and that's the end of it. Well, no, it's not.
Does McCormick test for pathogens?
We test for pathogens, but not at the source. We know that there are pathogens in almost all spices. How can there not be, considering the environment in which they're grown and how they're handled? The farms haven't changed a lot since I first started — it's a multitude of small farmers. In India, I've heard estimates of 150,000 pepper farmers.
Tell us about that growing and handling process.
People think we buyers negotiate with farmers; the reality is you can't, because there are so many small farmers.
There is usually someone [in the village] they are dedicated to go to, or who has the best price. They look at the peppers to see if they're clean. Then, it's stored there at the collector, and once there's enough it goes to a processor or exporter. They do rudimentary cleaning to get to FDA detection action levels. At this level they're not dealing with anything you can't see — stones, other plant leaves. It's mostly moved around in small poly woven bags.
What happens once that pepper gets to McCormick?
We may clean it first, and then it goes into a steam sterilization process. It's pasteurization. We do that with all of our spices. You can test a lot; you can take 10 different samples, 50 different samples, but there can still be hot spots in the lot where salmonella can be.
It sounds like steam sterilizing would affect flavor. Is there quality loss?
Yes, there is, particularly on the real fragile herbs. The leafy things like basil, that's a very delicate leaf; you have to do that in a way that gets the job done in the least amount of time.
Do you irradiate spices?
That is probably the one and only technology that we have that is sterile when it's done. It will kill bacteria down to single-digit levels. We do not use any irradiation in our facilities. The only time we do use it is if we have an industrial customer, for instance something they might use in a cheese product, dill seed or cumin seed, [and] they don't want yeast or mold. We ship it to the irradiator en route to them.
Where are the spices sterilized?
Our biggest plant is in Hunt Valley, Md., and we have a similar setup in Avignon [France] for Europe.
We don't want to sterilize and process our products [in the countries where we source our spices] for the most part. Any spice that has a hard shell, the minute you mill it you're releasing a lot of flavor and aroma. Black pepper, the minute you mill it it's going downhill. We don't want to push that all back to the source. It's a six- or eight-week journey to get to us.
There's been a lot of talk on working more with farmers to improve food safety with spices. Will that solve the problem?
Things are changing at the source, don't get me wrong, but they're changing at a relatively slow pace. It's just because of the enormity of the way these things are grown, the number of farmers involved. You have to look at the supply chain all the way from the farm to the end product.
What's new in the spice world?
People ask me what's the latest spice; the reality is there's nothing new. What you're seeing today more than anything is a revolution in seasoning blends and flavors. In the 1950s, the average household had 10 different spices. Today it's 40-some. And most of those are blends.
You may have seen recent media coverage about the safety of certain spices and herbs. We assure you that you can enjoy McCormick spices and herbs with confidence. For nearly 125 years, McCormick has an unmatched track record in delivering safe, high-quality products to people around the globe. 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. That’s why it’s important to purchase your spices from a trusted resource, and because of our unwavering commitment to safety and quality, McCormick continues to be the trusted global flavor leader for companies and consumers around the world.