By Anna Edney
WASHINGTON — Insect fragments and animal hairs taint 12 percent of imported spices, the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday.
The FDA said it looked at the safety of spices after outbreaks involving the seasonings. The agency also found pathogens in the spices, including salmonella, and suggested the spice industry look at options to mitigate risk including training to stress preventive controls.
"Nearly all of the insects found in spice samples were stored product pests, indicating inadequate packing or storage conditions," the draft report said. "The presence of rodent hair without the root in spices generally is generally indicative of contamination by rodent feces."
FDA's study identified 14 outbreaks involving spices from 1973 to 2010 that resulted in 2,000 people reporting illnesses worldwide. The small number of outbreaks in contrast to the high prevalence of filth and bacteria may be a result of people using a small amount on their food or cooking the spices, as well as safety measures taken by the industry, the agency said.
The FDA sampled 2,844 imported dry spice shipments from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2009 and found about 7 percent tested positive for salmonella, twice the rate of other FDA regulated food products, the agency said in the report. The agency found the highest prevalence of salmonella in leaf-based seasonings like basil and oregano and identified Mexico as the country with the highest percent of exports of contaminated spices, followed by India.
The U.S. is one of the largest importers of spices with more than 80 percent of the supply provided by other countries, the FDA said. About 400 people in the U.S. die from salmonella poisoning each year and 42,000 cases are reported annually, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said underreporting may make the actual number of cases about 29 times higher. The infection can cause diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
About 3.4 percent of the 17,508 shipments of other imported food tested positive in the FDA's sampling. The prevalence of tainted spices is about the same as the agency found 30 years ago in a smaller sampling experiment.
The FDA published the data on salmonella contamination in the journal Food Microbiology a year ago and today is warning consumers about the risk. The agency called the findings "surprising" at the time because spices have a low water content compared to other foods.
McCormick & Co., the largest U.S. seller of flavor products by revenue, posted a statement on the quality of its spices and herbs on its website.
"Whether they're grown in the United States or other parts of the world, McCormick exercises the same high level of quality control throughout our supply chain — including several million ingredient analyses each year and a natural steam pasteurization process," the Sparks, Md.-based company said.
Red and black pepper intended for use in Italian deli meats were implicated in a 2010 salmonella outbreak that affected 272 people in 44 states and Washington, D.C., according to the CDC. Pepper falls under the "fruit" category of seasonings, as does cumin and mustard.
Fruit spices were preceded by leaf and root seasonings in prevalence of salmonella. Turmeric and ginger are examples of root spices. Bark or flower spices like cinnamon and saffron had the lowest levels of salmonella prevalence.
Almost 9 percent of 1,057 spice shipments from India were contaminated with salmonella, the FDA said, compared with 14 percent of 136 shipments from Mexico. Canada came in with the lowest salmonella presence at less than 1 percent of its 110 shipments.