By Patricia Salber

512px-Spices_in_an_Indian_marketAre your spices filthy?  If they are imported, and in the US most are, they might well be.  A brief article in the November 27, 2013 issue of JAMA reports on the findings of a draft risk profile issue by the FDA on October 30.  It found that ~12% of imported spices were contaminated with filth (rodent hairs, insects or insect fragments, and occasionally animal and/or insect fecal materials).  Yuk!

But the concern is beyond yuk.  Almost 6% of spices sampled were contaminated with Salmonella.  Further, these contaminates have been tied to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.  According to the article, there have been 124 spice-related outbreaks between 1973 and 2010 including a large outbreak of Salmonella-related illness in 2008-2009 associated with the use of white pepper.  The outbreaks caused 1946 illnesses, 128 hospitalization, and 2 deaths.

There are three main reasons for the contamination:

  •  Failure to limit animal access to the spice source plants at harvest or during drying
  • Failing to prevent stored-product pests from accessing the spices during storage
  • Failure to apply an effective pathogen reduction treatment

So, what can your do, short of reverting to a bland diet?  One answer is to grow your own herbs and spices.   This gives you ultimate control.  My yard supplies everything I need except for complex spices, such as curry mixes.  I grow basil, bay leaf, oregano, marjoram, cilantro, parsley, lemon grass, hot peppers, sage, peppermint, and spearmint and more – or rather it grows itself, I just harvest it.  If this is not your cup of tea or if your thumb is not green, try to buy locally grown spices from reliable sources, such as farmers’ markets or natural food stores.

Hopefully, shining a light on the contamination issue will bring market forces to bear on the overseas spice producers to literally clean up their act.