If you look at the August 27, 2013 New York Times.com article by Gardiner Harris, "Salmonella in Spices Prompts Changes in Farming, you may be surprised at how often some, but not all imported spices are contaminated with salmonella bacteria. At the same time, a quarter of the spices used in the USA are imported. Numerous farms in different countries find drying spices in ovens cost too much money the farmers don't have. Can farmers overseas even afford changes in farming techniques?
So they dry the spices in the sunlight because it's free. Maybe a net protects the spices from bird droppings, but not from salmonella contamination once in a while. That's a problem of dealing with imported spices. And a quarter of spices used in the USA are imported.
The United States Food and Drug Administration will soon release a comprehensive analysis that pinpoints imported spices, found in just about every kitchen in the Western world, as a surprisingly potent source of salmonella poisoning, explains the NY Times article. Is the real issue not enough people, money, and time is available to inspect the most of the imported spices for salmonella contamination? Or is the root of the problem the farmer overseas who doesn't have the funds to dehydrate the spices in clean ovens before grinding them, and simply uses traditional drying in the sunlight because it's free or at least costs less?
Study shows percentage of food shipments of spices contaminated with salmonella
In a study of more than 20,000 food shipments, the food agency found that nearly 7 percent of spice lots were contaminated with salmonella, twice the average of all other imported foods. Some 15 percent of coriander and 12 percent of oregano and basil shipments were contaminated, with high contamination levels also found in sesame seeds, curry powder and cumin. Four percent of black pepper shipments were contaminated.
If each year, 1.2 million people in the United States become sick from salmonella, one of the most common causes of food-borne illness, then why aren't more spices grown in the USA in greenhouses or in states with warmer climates?
More than 23,000 people are hospitalized and 450 die from salmonella infections. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps that begin 12 to 36 hours after infection and can last three to five days. Death can result when infection spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream and affects vital organs. Infants and older people are most at risk.
Mexico and India had the highest share of contaminated spices in a recent study
About 14 percent of the samples from Mexico contained salmonella, the study found, a result Mexican officials disputed. India’s exports were the second-most contaminated, at approximately 9 percent. The problem is that India ships nearly four times the amount of spices to the United States that Mexico does. If you look at the contamination statistics, it alerts people to research where spices are coming from that they're buying.
Many people buy spices from supermarkets and also from small mom and pop ethnic food stores that make a living from importing spices and various ethnic foods eaten by specific communities that want to use those spices for traditional cooking. And ethnic restaurants also may rely on spices and other foods from a specific area of the world. For example, almost one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India. But India isn't the only country with imported food issues.
Recently imported pomegranate seeds from Turkey were found to be contaminated by a specific strain of hepatitis virus, and people who bought organic mixed berries got the contaminated seeds along with local berries in a frozen food package of organic food sold in a major food market. The frozen berries were recalled several months ago. See, "Contaminated Costco berries cause hepatitis outbreak."
Some imported spices pose a problem with salmonella
You can check out the findings, the result of a three-year study by the FDA recently published in the journal Food Microbiology. Check out the spice analysis that will be made public “soon,” agency officials said, according to the NY Times article. There's a separate study on Mexico's spices imported to the USA. In that study, some Mexican vegetables had a salmonella problem.
The problem with spices in some studies is that the FDA is finding more salmonella types on imported spices than is typically found on contaminated meat. Some people still think most food is inspected. But the FDA visually inspects less than 1 percent of all imported foods and performs lab tests on a tiny fraction.
So who's watching the watchers? It only takes 10 salmonella cells on foods to cause serious illness
Most people don't associate the pepper from the spice shaker as causing their sickness. The contents of spice cabinets are rarely looked at for years in most people's kitchens, unless a large amount of spices are used to feed many people frequently.
Illnesses caused by spices are hard to trace. Scientists look at the genes and DNA of salmonella types. The DNA is sequenced and traced to certain types of spices when outbreaks happen. Check out the news of the 2010 black and red pepper salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 250 people in 44 states. It happened the year after the 2009 white pepper salmonella outbreak. Check out the news on the inspection about how salmonella bacteria colonized much of a Union City, California spice processing facility at the center of the of the outbreak. The November 24, 2009 FDA 'warning' letter is at the site, "Inspections, Compliance, Enforcement, and Criminal Investigations."
Lead also has been found last year in some types of imported turmeric
Healthcare providers have also seen cases of lead poisoning due to exposure to Indian spices and powders in California. Some turmeric and curcumin supplements have failed a quality review. Last year ConsumerLab.com found 20% of turmeric supplements selected for testing to deliver less than 15% of what the label promised.
The journal Science also reported that feeding mice curcumin, a component of turmeric, alleviates symptoms of cystic fibrosis. Also a study from the American Diabetic Association suggests that turmeric may help to prevent type 2 diabetes.
See, "Integrative Medicine: Curcumin may aid diabetes fight," a column in the Sacramento Bee's Integrative medicine section by Drs. Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden, medical directors of Sutter Downtown Integrative Medicine program in Sacramento. But before you buy turmeric or a cucurmin supplement, here's how to make sure you don't buy any of the types of turmeric full of excess lead.
The turmeric associated with all of the California cases was obtained directly from India, Nepal and Bangladesh rather than being sold in local stores. Since they were in unmarked bags it was not possible to identify a manufacturer or a distributor.
You can check out the February 16, 2011 news release, Problems with Some Turmeric and Curcumin Supplements. Also there appeared to be an excess lead problem. See, Turmeric - Curcumin beware of lead contamination - Discussion. And lead was found in numerous imported Indian spices and various powders. See, Caution Advised About Lead in Indian Spices and Powders - NAM.
In the cases of lead poisoning from Indian spices such as turmeric that turned up in California in Alameda, the problem has been with turmeric. The California Department of Public Health has identified cases of lead poisoning associated with lead contaminated spices including chili powder and turmeric, according to the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch.
California cases of lead poisoning from turmeric have been found in adults, children and in a pregnant woman. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set the maximum exposure limit for children at 6 micrograms per day (mcg/day) for children and 75 mcg/day for adults.
Imported Indian spices: Who tests all of them for lead excesses?
Indian spices and ceremonial powders have entered the long list of sources where lead has been found. The study in the journal Pediatrics identified Indian spices and cultural powders as a more recent source of lead poisoning. You can read the original study or its abstract, "Pediatric Lead Exposure From Imported Indian Spices and Cultural Powders."
Four cases of pediatric lead poisoning from Indian spices or cultural powders are described in that study published in the journal Pediatrics. Chronic exposure to spices and cultural powders may cause elevated BLLs. A majority of cultural products contained >1 μg/g lead, and some sindoor contained extremely high bioaccessible lead levels. Clinicians should routinely screen for exposure to these products.
The Pediatrics journal study is reported to have been undertaken after several reports of lead poisoning in Indian children in Boston were found. How does lead get into the spices? Actually, the lead can penetrate into spices if they are grown in lead-contaminated soil or can be inadvertently added during the manufacturing or drying process.
Also lead may be intentionally added to add color or weight to the product. Some health care providers also observed that many of these products are brought into the United States when people go back to their home countries or when their families come to visit them here. Many people seeking to save money on the higher cost of organic turmeric at local health food stores and food markets go to the ethnic grocery stores that import spices from India and other countries and buy brands imported from other countries.
For example, the many Indian grocery and ethnic food markets in Sacramento sell a wide variety of turmeric and curry brands and blends. Labels usually are in English. And a huge bag of turmeric is priced low compared to a small bottle of organic turmeric sold in supermarkets or food stores in small spice bottles.
How do you know what brands were tested for lead, even if you pay more money for a tiny spice bottle of organic turmeric or if you buy capsules of cucurmin or turmeric in supplement forms from various vitamin/supplement companies? How do you know who tested and measured the spices for bioavailability, absorption, and lead or other toxic metal content that could have come from the growing soil or added as a filler or a coloring agent?
Consumer Lab tested turmeric and curcumin for lead
The biggest problem with turmeric is that those tested had little curcuminoid compounds in them. And curcumin is supposed to do the most good as far as the anti-inflammatory health benefits are said to happen from consuming a small amount of curcumin, usually found in turmeric.
Supplements containing the herb turmeric or its key compound, curcumin, have become popular in the U.S. ConsumerLab.com cautioned that two out of ten turmeric products recently selected for quality testing were found to provide only 7.7% and 14.7%, respectively, of expected curcuminoid compounds. Unlike some turmeric supplements tested in the past, however, none of the recently tested products exceeded strict limits for lead and cadmium contamination.
Turmeric has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant activities
Recent research has focused on curcuminoids, the specific compounds in turmeric including curcumin which give turmeric its orange-yellow color. Studies suggest a role for curcuminoids in the treatment of a range of diseases including ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic anterior uveitis (an autoimmune disease of the eye), as well as for indigestion. According to Nutrition Business Journal, sales of turmeric and curcumin supplements grew to $59 million in 2009, up from $43 million in 2008.
How do you know whether you're getting a product with curcumin in the turmeric?
The products that failed Consumer Lab.com's testing would deliver only a small fraction of the doses expected from their labels. The problem also is with the poor absorption of curcumin. You'd need specially formulated products that can show you how that product will be absorbed. And testing needs to prove the bioavailability.
ConsumerLab.com calculated the cost to obtain a 500 mg dose of curcuminoids, which ranged from 13 cents to 52 cents among products that passed testing, some of which included bioavailability enhancers. For the two products that failed testing, the costs were $3.44 and $7.88, due to the small amounts of curcuminoids that they actually contained.
The ConsumerLab.com report is available at its turmeric-cucurmin supplements review website. Included are findings for ten products selected by ConsumerLab.com as well six that passed ConsumerLab.com's Voluntary Certification Program.
Products reviewed by Consumer Lab.com include the following: Advance Physician Formulas Curcumin, Doctor’s Best Curcumin C3 Complex with Bioperine, Doctors Purest Ageless Cures Curcumin C3 Complex, Douglas Laboratories Ayur-Curcumin, GNC Herbals Plus Standardized Curcumin, Jarrow Formulas Curcumin 95, Life Extension Super Curcumin with Bioperine, Natural Factors Turmeric and Bromelain, Naturally Enhanced Absorption Curcu-Gel and Curcu-Gel Ultra, Nature’s Life Turmeric Ginger Joint Ease, Nature’s Way Turmeric, Paradise Herbs & Essentials Turmeric, Solgar Turmeric Root Extract, Swanson Superior Herbs Curcumin, and Vitamin Shoppe Standardized Herbs Turmeric Extract.
Check out the Consumer Lab report which gives you information about the use of turmeric and curcumin supplements, including suggested dosages, bioavailability issues, and potential side effects. ConsumerLab.com is a leading provider of consumer information and independent evaluations of products that affect health and nutrition.
Reviews of popular types of vitamins, supplements, and generic drugs are available at Consumer Lab. Subscription to ConsumerLab.com is available online. The company is privately held and based in Westchester, New York. It has no ownership from, or interest in, companies that manufacture, distribute, or sell consumer products. You also can subscribe to the Consumer Lab reports so you can see results on the various brands tested.