Salmonella In Spices: FDA Study Finds 7 Percent of Imported Spices Are Contaminated; Which Are The Worst Offenders?

By Josh Lieberman on August 30, 2013 11:36 AM EDT

spices
Salmonella was found in 7 percent of imported spices, according to an FDA study. Many of the contaminated spices came from India and Mexico. (Photo: Flickr: saramarlowe)

About seven percent of imported spices tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 2002 and 2009 were contaminated with salmonella, according to a study published in Food Microbiology. The FDA will release a comprehensive analysis related to this study "soon," according to the New York Times.   

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"Salmonella is a widespread problem with respect to imported spices," Michael Taylor, deputy F.D.A. commissioner for food, told the New York Times. "We have decided that spices are one of the significant issues we need to be addressing right now."

In the Food Microbiology study, researchers from the FDA tested 20,000 imported spices over a seven-year period. With seven percent of spice lots containing salmonella, imported spices were twice as likely as other imported foods to contain the bacterium. Certain types of imported spices tested by the FDA were found to be contaminated with salmonella 15 percent of the time.

The worst offenders were some of the most common products on spice racks across America: coriander, basil, oregano, sesame seeds, cumin, curry powder and -- most alarmingly -- black pepper. Spices that came from fruit, seeds and leaves were more likely to be contaminated with salmonella than spices from bark or the flowering part of a plant. Spices that were ground up or cracked were more likely to be contaminated than were whole spices.  

The highest number of contaminated spices came from Mexico and India. Mexican spices showed 14 percent levels of salmonella, while Indian spices were contaminated in 9 percent of cases. But while the percentage of salmonella cases from India is a bit lower than that of Mexico, the U.S. imports one-fourth of its spices and oils from India.

A representative from Mexico's Federal Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Risk disputed the findings, but in India, precautions are being taken to minimize the salmonella risk. 

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

The New York Times tells the story of the Josephs, a family that runs a pepper farm in India. While the have traditionally dried their pepper seeds on bamboo mats or dirt floors -- where the seeds were subjected to possible contamination from dung and dirt -- the Josephs now use safer methods.

Now, the Josephs 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 catch bird droppings. Ovens would be even more sanitary, but ovens and electricity are expensive "and sunlight is free," Mr. Joseph said.

Salmonella poisoning from imported spices is a particular concern in the U.S., which buys $1.1 billion of spices from other countries each year. In the U.S., it is common practice to spice foods after they've been cooked, whereas in other countries it can be more common to only spice foods while cooking, which kills bacteria. And because salmonella lives in spices indefinitely, a bottle of coriander contaminated with salmonella may sit in a spice rack for years, making salmonella cases difficult to trace.  

READ MORE:

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Prehistoric Spices: Neolithic Chefs Cooked With Garlic Mustard Before Development of Agriculture [STUDY]

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