Salmonella Contamination, Other Bacteria Found in Imported Spices: FDA

More than one-in-ten shipments of spices from other countries may be contaminated with salmonella or other bacteria, according to a new report. 

According to a study published in the December 2013 issue of the journal Food Microbiology, researchers found that more than 12% of dried spice shipments tested positive for some type of contaminant, with salmonella being the culprit more than half the time. The study revealed imported spices are twice as likely as other inspected foods to be contaminated.

FDA investigators tested 300 shipments of imported dried capsicum and 233 shipments of imported sesame seed between 2007 to 2010. They found that seven percent of spices imported during that time were contaminated with salmonella. More than 80 different strains of Salmonella were detected during testing.

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Nearly 750 shipments were refused entry to the U.S. by the FDA because of salmonella. Another 238 were denied because of the presence of “filth;” which the FDA uses to describe contamination by insects, excrement, hair and other materials.

The findings contradict the generally accepted belief among health officials that the low water content in spices makes them less susceptible to contamination. Officials also assumed the amount of spice that is generally eaten is small in comparison to other foods, creating a smaller chance of illness than from fruit and vegetables.

Most Spices Are Imported

The majority of spices eaten in the Unites States are imported. Spices tested were imported from India, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam. Many spices are grown and harvested on small farms in countries which may have different levels of food oversight than in the United States.

Spices imported from India and Mexico had the highest rates of contamination than other countries. More than one-quarter of spices, oils and food colorings in the U.S. come from India.

Federal health officials plan to use recent legislation which allows the FDA the power to refuse entry of foods that the agency may suspect as contaminated to demand changes in harvesting, manufacturing practices and handling in foreign countries.

The FDA is not recommending consumers stop using spices. The agency recommends spices be added to food before cooking to reduce the change of illness.

Many food manufacturers often treat spices before marketing the products, to help reduce the incidence of illness.

There are 1.2 million Salmonella illnesses in the U.S. Each year, 400 people die from salmonella poisoning. It remains unclear how many of those illnesses are a result of spice contamination since the many people fail to report spices when asked about foods which may have contributed to their illness.

The FDA has recorded 14 known outbreaks worldwide caused by spices since 1973. Those outbreaks caused nearly 2,000 illnesses, many in children.

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