Sugar and spice and everything nice, the saying goes. But after reviewing research released this week by the Food and Drug Administration, you’re more likely to think spices are full of snips and snails and aren’t so very nice. The F.D.A. has found that 12 percent of spice imports to the United States are contaminated with insect parts, whole insects, rodent hairs and “other things.”
The F.D.A. also reports that nearly seven percent of spice imports were contaminated with toxic salmonella bacteria. Altogether, imported spices were found to be contaminated with insect parts and salmonella at twice the rate of other imported foods.
Notably, the types of insects the FDA investigation found in imported spices were the sort that are found in warehouses and storage facilities. That is, the contamination is not due to poor harvesting practices but to less-than-adequate (um, sanitary) processing and storage of spices.
1.2 million cases of salmonella occur annually in the United States and determining how many of those might come from eating contaminated spices is hard to figure out. Spices are not the main ingredient in food products and people with food poisoning rarely remember if anything they ate contained spices. From 1973 to 2010, fewer than 2,000 people’s illnesses were clearly linked to contaminated spices.
Still, since an estimated 15 percent of food consumed in the United States is now imported, it is more and more necessary to have regulations in place to test the safety of imports. Due to what the F.D.A. refers to as “high levels of filth from insects and rodent,” making spices imported from countries such as India and Mexico (the U.S. imports one-quarter of spices, oils and such products from these countries) safe to consume is no easy task.
Food manufacturers process imported spices more before passing them on to consumers. But the F.D.A. discovered that even treated, those spices could still be contaminated. Even heating spices at high heat while cooking is not necessarily sufficient to make them safe to consume.
Accordingly, it’s imperative that the F.D.A. have some kind of policy in place about inspecting factories, warehouses, processing plants and other facilities in foreign countries and devise regulations about food safety. Carrying out such investigations, as well as working with foreign governments about safety standards, poses quite a few challenges. F.D.A. commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg was supposed to visit India this fall to discuss health concerns with with spice industry officials; her travel was disrupted by the government shutdown.
Officials in India are starting to offer incentives to farmers to cease from using traditional processing and storage practices that can more easily lead to contamination. It won’t be an easy problem to address. In talking about the F.D.A.‘s research with one of my students who is from northern India, I got the sense that changing how spices (most of which are from southern India) are handled and stored to meet with contemporary Western standards could be a long and complicated process.
The F.D.A.‘s findings on spices is enough to make you decide it might be best to skip adding a dash of turmeric or cumin and resign yourself to a bland diet. At a time when the Unite States is importing more food than ever, the FDA’s “risk profile on pathogens and filth in spices” is a reminder about the potential health hazards from foods produced far away and yet another reason to eat local (and maybe even grow a few herbs yourself to use instead).
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