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Rat Hair, Bug Parts Found in Imported Spices

spices
spices
Flickr/FDA report, aptly titled "Risk Profile: Pathogen and Filth in Spices," was released last Wednesday. It states that the agency decided to look more closely into imported spices after linking recent outbreaks of food poisoning in the United States to the consumption of Salmonella-contaminated imported spices.

According to the report (not something you want to read before lunch), microbial pathogens found in the spices included Salmonella, Bacillus, Clostridium perfringens, Cronobacter, Shigella and Staphylococcus aureus. "Filth adulterants" -- brace yourself here -- included "insects (live and dead whole insects and insect parts), excrement (animal, bird and insect), hair (human, rodent, bat, cow, sheep, dog, cat and others), and other materials (decomposed parts, bird barbs, bird barbules, bird feathers, stones, twigs, staples, wood slivers, plastic, synthetic fibers and rubber bands)."

The "filth prevalence" was the same for whole and ground spices. The most common types of filth adulterant were rodent hair, insect parts and whole insects. However, "The presence of rodent hair (without a root) in spices is generally indicative of contamination by rodent feces."

Not exactly the type of "secret ingredient" you want in your pumpkin pie!

The report further states that 6.6% of the spices imported from 2007 to 2009 were contaminated with Salmonella -- 4.4 times the average prevalence determined for shipments of other FDA-regulated imported foods sampled during that time. A wide variety of spice types and forms -- everything from basic black pepper to sesame seeds -- was found to contain Salmonella, and more than 80 different Salmonella serotypes were isolated from spices in contaminated shipments. Nearly 7% of those exhibited antimicrobial-resistant properties.

Most of the U.S. spice supply is imported, the FDA says, mostly from India (about 25%) and Mexico -- whose spices also happen to have the highest rates of contamination.

Unfortunately, "The study's findings suggest that the presence of pathogens, such as Salmonella, and filth in spices is a systemic challenge," the FDA says.

"The distribution of spice from primary producer to consumer can be very complex, involving multiple locations, multiple processing and/or packing steps and long periods. Inappropriate packing and storage of spice during any one of these steps may lead to the introduction of Salmonella or filth into spice," according to the report.

(You might want to try to keep your imagination from going wild here, imagining the foreign contamination "scenarios," or you may end up eating very bland food.)

The agency's findings "are a wake-up call" to spice producers, Jane M. Van Doren, a food and spice official at the FDA, told the New York Times. "It means: 'Hey, you haven't solved the problems.'" That's for sure!

It is unclear how many of the nearly 1.2 million annual salmonella illnesses in the United States result from contaminated spices, according to officials. It's difficult to pin down food poisoning to that cracked pepper you had on your salad. Also, people tend not to think of spices when asked what foods might have made them sick, so illnesses related to spices could be seriously underreported, officials said.

On the other hand, people might not get sick from spices as often as they might otherwise based on their high Salmonella contamination rate because they use small quantities and they are often used in cooking, which kills the bacteria.

On the plus side, the recent Food Safety and Modernization Act grants the FDA the power to refuse entry of foods that the agency even suspects might be contaminated. This gives it the teeth to demand changes in spice harvesting and handling practices in foreign countries.

So, to be clear, India and Mexico: That means no rat hair, no cockroaches, no bird crap, no wood slivers, no rocks, no pieces of plastic and no feathers. If you could hold the virulent bacteria and not let your dog piss on the pepper, that would be a big plus. Can you do that for us? That would be great, thanks.


Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook, and follow Samantha Bonar at @samanthabonar.

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