When my husband’s Italian grandmother, Angelina Pedroli, was teaching me to make her famous homemade pizza, she’d stand over the tray of fresh dough, thick tomato sauce and thinly sliced toppings, and let loose a blizzard of oregano.
“Don’t be afraid of the oregano,” she preached religiously.
But according to forthcoming three-year FDA study, that advice may now be very wrong.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the New York Times was able to obtain a copy of an upcoming report and found that imported spices like oregano, basil, coriander, sesame seeds, curry powder, cumin and black pepper were contaminated (at varying levels) with salmonella.
“In a study of more than 20,000 food shipments, the food agency found that nearly 7 percent of spice lots were contaminated with salmonella, twice the average of all other imported foods,” writes Gardiner Harris.
Spices imported from Mexico and India were the most frequent source of contamination. While Mexican officials disputed the findings, concerns over Indian imports may turn out to be more worrisome.
“Nearly one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India,” writes Harris. Indeed, India is third largest exporter of spices in the world.
“FDA tests found that contaminated spices tend to have many more salmonella types than is typically found on meat. The agency, which visually inspects less than 1 percent of all imported foods and performs lab tests on a tiny fraction, rejects imports with any signs of salmonella contamination because as few as 10 cells have been shown to cause serious illness,” he continues.
The FDA itself is concerned enough by what might be lurking in imported spices that they are in the final stages of completing a risk profile on them, to characterize the nature and extent of public health risk.
"The safety of spices is important to FDA and presents numerous challenges due to the diversity of the industry and the fact that spices are widely distributed as ingredients in other products. Many spices are treated to reduce contamination but spices in general are not risk-free," says FDA spokesperson Shelly Burgess in an email.
Once the Food Safety Moderization Act kicks in, importers would be responsible for ensuring that suppliers are following U.S. requirements, and would require preventive controls for facilities, she adds.
While we don't know exactly how many shipments of imported spices are inspected when they reach the U.S., what we do know is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six Americans becomes sick from foodborne illnesses and 3,000 die a year; and that salmonella is the second leading pathogen to cause foodborne illness, right behind norovirus.
Part of the concern over the reported findings is that when we add spices to our food—like ground pepper—it’s done after the cooking process is complete, with no chance to kill lurking pathogens. It also turns out that some forms of spice may be more concerning than others.
According to an FDA report published in the June issue of Food Microbiology, spices derived from fruit/seeds or leaves were contaminated with salmonella more than spices that came from the bark or flower of plants. Salmonella was also more prevalent in shipments of ground and cracked capsicum and coriander than whole spices.
This isn’t the first time spices have been linked to illness. In March of last year, we told you about a CDC report that found foodborne disease outbreaks caused by imported food were on the rise. The top two culprits? Imported fish and spices.
For Iowa-based spice importer Frontier, which also packages spices under the Simply Organic label, the threat of pathogens in imported spices has been a known risk for the last decade. Depending on the spice, sophisticated steam sterilization equipment is sometimes used by the company to eliminate pathogens like salmonella. Company spokesperson Joe Coffey says the company also tests for pathogens in an ISO-certified laboratory, and packages spices in its own facility to reduce risk.
The bad news is salmonella can survive indefinitely on dried spices, writes Harris. And killing the pathogen on delicate leaves or seeds can destroy the quality. So what’s an eater to do? Standard food-safety advice still applies: Heat is your friend.