Food safety experts have been keeping a lid on a surprising source of food poisoning -- your spice cabinet, according to the New York Times. Pepper poses a particular danger.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will "soon" release a comprehensive analysis that fingers imported spices as a source of Salmonella infections, the Times says.
The agency studied more than 20,000 food shipments and found that almost 7 percent of spice lots were contaminated with Salmonella, on average. That was twice the average of all other imported foods. Some spices were contaminated at an even higher rate: 15 percent of coriander and 12 percent of oregano and basil shipments were contaminated. High contamination levels were also found in sesame seeds, curry powder and cumin. Four percent of black pepper was contaminated.
Mexico and India were the countries with the highest levels of contamination in their spices. About 14 percent of the samples from Mexico contained Salmonella, according to the FDA, although Mexican officials dispute that.
About 9 percent of India's exports were contaminated. However, India is a bigger problem because the country ships nearly four times the amount of spices to the United States that Mexico does, according to the Times: "Nearly one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India."
FDA testing also found that the contaminated spices tended to contain multiple Salmonella types, many more than are typically found on contaminated meat. That can mean a super-illness cocktail.
About 1.2 million people in the U.S. become sick from Salmonella every year; more than 23,000 are hospitalized and 450 die. A U.S. outbreak in 2010 involved black and red pepper that sickened more than 250 people in 44 states. A 2009 outbreak was linked to white pepper.
The findings are the result of a three-year study that FDA officials recently published in the journal Food Microbiology.
"Salmonella is a widespread problem with respect to imported spices," Michael Taylor, deputy FDA commissioner for food, told the Times. "We have decided that spices are one of the significant issues we need to be addressing right now."
At Western tables, spices tend to be added to already-cooked foods, so bacteria is consumed alive and potent. Spices tend to be added during cooking in other countries, making contaminated spices less of a threat because the bacteria is killed at high temperatures.
But it behooves spice exporters to take the United States' concerns seriously if they want us to keep buying their goods.
"The world wants safe spices, and we are committed to making that happen," Dr. A. Jayathilak, chairman of the Spices Board of India, a government agency that regulates and promotes spices, told the Times. India is the world's largest producer and exporter of spices.
The United States imports about 326 metric tons of spices a year, accounting for more than 80 percent of the total U.S. spice supply, according to the Times. Nineteen percent come from India and 5 percent from Mexico.
Unfortunately, Salmonella can survive indefinitely on dried spices. Killing it on the uneven surface of dried peppercorns is a particular challenge. Cleaning methods include steam-heating, irradiation and ethylene oxide gas. Just using cleaner harvesting methods -- such as putting tarps on the ground and using netting to protect the spices from birds -- can go a long way.
While India gets its act together, maybe plant your own pepper vine?
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