It was revealed late last month that up to 7 percent of spices tested by Food and Drug Administration were found to contain salmonella. According to the three-year study, published in Food Microbiology thousands of spices a year are contaminated with these sometimes-deadly bacteria. Salmonella is one the most common food born illness and can cause fever, diarrhea, and cramps. If the infection spreads from the intestines to the blood, it can even result in death.
In the FDA funded study of over 20,000 shipments, 7 percent were found to be contained with salmonella, which twice the usual amount for imported foods. Contamination levels were highest in coriander (15%) and oregano and basil (12%) but also were found in spices like curry powder and cumin. The perennial dinner table staple black pepper had a 4% contamination rate, according to the study.
Why We Get Sick
Western cultures are more susceptible to polluted spices because they tend to add the spices at the table (think black pepper), so any bacteria on those spices are eaten live and untreated. But as those harmful bacteria do not like high heat, cultures where spices are added when they are cooked (think woks & stir fry), have less of a problem. Heating to over 160 degrees Fahrenheit neutralizes the bacteria. Salmonella microbes, when dry, can go into hibernation while and “come alive” when they make contact with liquids such as water found in your stomach. An estimated 1.2 million people are made sick by salmonella every year in the United States. Young people, infants, those with compromised immune systems, and older individuals are at the most risk of dying from salmonella.
Less Then One Percent
Though the FDA tests less then one percent of all imported foods, they will refuse anything with the slightest sign of salmonella, as a handful of cells is enough to make cause sickness. Spices can become contaminated as they lay on the ground drying, and are at risk of being touched by animals that commonly carry the microbe. Between 2007 and 2010 there were three large outbreaks of salmonella that were discovered to be caused by spices. One of those, involving red and black pepper, was traced to 44 different states and 250 people.
India and Mexico
Spices imported from India and Mexico had the highest rate of contamination. India, which is the leading producer, consumer and exporter of spices in the world, makes up almost one-fourth of all the spices and oils and food colorings agents used in American. Because of this volume and the associated risk the FDA has even opened offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. Spices can be treated by steam heating, irradiation or ethylene oxide gas but the FDA even found salmonella traces of salmonella in those that had been labeled as treated. Most food safety rules calls for food to be heated to over 160 degrees Fahrenheit which kills most salmonella bacteria, and remember that freezing will not kill it’s harmful microbes.
Eli Madrone is a freelance health and science writer based in Portland, Oregon. He learned about spices and salmonella while speaking with Gresham dentist Dr. Daniel Ries.