Are 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 Food and Drug Administration (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, a bacteria that can cause a serious diarrheal illness in humans. Further, these contaminants have actually 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 spices get contaminated:

  • 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


What to do?

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. Here are some resources to help you get started growing your own spices:

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, natural food stores or a trusted supplier.

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.

Here is an additional resource that you might find useful:

This post was first published on 12/3/2013 based on the 2013 FDA draft report. It was updated based on updated information on the FDA website, accessed 5/3/2017.