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FDA reports disturbing findings on imported spices

As the holiday season approaches, Florida residents, like people across the country, will be doing more than our usual amount of cooking and baking. This is an especially troubling time to hear the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) latest report that approximately 12 percent of imported species are contaminated.

The contaminants include an unappetizing array of things like insects (whole and partial) and rodent hairs. Even more troubling is that according to federal inspectors, close to 7 percent of imported spices tested positive for Salmonella. That bacteria, which can also be carried by insects, can sicken and even kill people.

Spices from two countries, India and Mexico, were found to have the greatest amount of contamination. Since about one-fourth of our spices come from India, that’s a particularly disturbing finding for people who enjoy Indian cuisine. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg had plans to travel to India to meet with people in the spice industry this autumn. However, she had to cancel her plans amid the federal government shutdown.

Nonetheless, officials in India’s spice industry say they are trying to incentivize farmers to adapt new procedures to lessen contamination. Another big incentive may come from the FDA. The agency can refuse to allow imported products into the country if it suspects contamination. However, because insects are more likely to get into spices in the warehouses that store them than during the growing and harvesting, the problem may not be something that farmers can solve.

It is difficult to determine just how many illnesses and deaths from Salmonella are caused by spices because when most people become sick, they report what food they have eaten but generally not what spices were on or in it. Therefore, the relatively small number of Salmonella-related illnesses linked to these defective products is likely not an accurate representation of reality.

These findings show that when a person becomes ill from a suspected food-borne contaminant, it is important to look at the ingredients, including the spices, which were used to prepare the food. No doubt, restaurants and companies that make pre-packaged foods, in addition to spice importers, will be taking note of these findings and putting pressure on spice growers and exporters in other countries to better insure the quality of their products. This will help prevent the litigation and bad publicity that results from selling contaminated food.

Source: The New York Times, “F.D.A. Finds 12 of U.S. Spice Imports Contaminated” Gardiner Harris, Oct. 30, 2013

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