Contaminated spices with “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)” make up about 12 percent of all spices imported into the United States each year, announced the FDA in a report released on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. According to an Oct. 30, 2013, Los Angeles Times report, the FDA study about contaminated spices followed the recent outbreaks of several salmonella cases in the United States.
In addition to finding that 12 percent of spices imported into the United States were contaminated with insect parts, whole insects, rodent hairs, rubber bands, and other things, federal food authorities also discovered that seven percent of imported spices were contaminated with salmonella, a toxic bacteria that can cause severe illness in humans.
While salmonella can be destroyed by cooking a meal thoroughly, many of the other items found in the contaminated spices cannot be treated with heat and remain a public health threat.
According to the FDA report on contaminated spices, in 2007, capsicums were primarily imported from China, Mexico, Peru and India. Black pepper was imported from Brazil, Vietnam and India. Ginger is primarily imported from China. More than 70% of vanilla imports were from Madagascar with smaller contributions from Uganda, Indonesia, India and Papua New Guinea. Cumin seeds are imported from several countries including India, Syria, Turkey, China and Pakistan. Cinnamon is imported from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Brazil and China.
The highest rate of spice contamination was found in spice imports coming from Mexico and India. Nearly one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India, according to the FDA.
Unlike the United States, food safety standards in foreign countries not only differ but are also frequently not observed at all which makes the contamination of spices all too possible. In order to reduce the likelihood of spice contamination, Indian spice officials are offering incentives to get farmers to change some traditional harvesting, manufacturing, and handling practices.
While recent legislation in the United States gives the FDA the right to refuse the import of potentially contaminated foods and spices, the FDA emphasizes in its report that much more research is needed and more data needs to be collected in order to fully investigate and potentially avoid the import of contaminated spices and other foods.
“These data should distinguish among spice type, cuisine, type of use, and food preparation setting (e.g., food manufacturers, institution, restaurant, or home). This information will help to characterize the public health risk posed by contaminated spices and help to identify the most likely populations to consume contaminated spices.”