Contaminated Spices

Undercooked meat is often the culprit in cases of food poisoning, but the spices you flavor the meat with could also make you sick. 

A forthcoming report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that common imported spices are contaminated with salmonella at twice the rate of all other imported foods. Out of 20,000 food shipments, seven percent of spices were contaminated with salmonella, The New York Times reported today.

The biggest offenders on the list of contaminated spices are common ones sold in grocery stores across the U.S.: coriander, oregano, basil, sesame seeds, curry powder, cumin, and black pepper.

Similar surveys in 2000 and 2001 found that up to 8.4 percent of fresh herb samples brought into the U.S. also tested positive for salmonella.

Salmonella is the most common food-borne bacteria, infecting an estimated 1.2 million people a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The young, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk of dying from salmonella poisoning.

Children under five are the most likely to become infected with salmonella, the CDC states.

Spice-Related Outbreaks in the U.S.

Food poisoning outbreaks related to common kitchen spices are nothing new.

"There have been a number of food safety outbreaks that the FDA has been able to link back to contaminated food spices," Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety (CFS), said in an interview with Healthline.

According to research published in Food Research International, more than 1,700 cases of food poisoning have been linked to spices from basil to black, white, and red pepper. In 2009 and 2010, 272 people in 44 states were infected with salmonella from black and red pepper used in salami.

In June, the CDC reported a salmonella outbreak linked to Krino’s Tahini Sesame Paste that sickened 16 people across the U.S., killing one. The paste, imported from Turkey, was recalled.

The issue plaguing the international spice industry is how well spices are taken care of before they reach the U.S. The cheaper the spice is, the larger the risk of contamination, Hanson said. 

The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act addressed the issue of oversight of imported foods, but few of the law’s mandates were enacted. The CFS sued, forcing the FDA into action.

Keeping Your Family Safe

While regulatory agencies work to improve standards for imported foods, many of the ones in question are on the shelves of supermarkets and perhaps in your home.

There’s no call to empty your entire pantry—some simple food safety techniques can help keep you from getting sick.

James Schend, food editor for Taste of Home, offered some tips on keeping safety—and flavor—on the table.

“When it comes to dried spices, heating is definitely your friend,” he said. “Not only will it bring out the flavors of the spices, but if they’re heated long enough, that will kill almost all bacterial hitchhikers.”

Salmonella bacteria can survive on its own, and freezing doesn’t kill it. Food safety standards require that foods be heated to 150 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit in order to kill bacteria.

“When cooking with spices, I like to grind them up and toast them first to bring out their oils and increase their flavor before adding other ingredients,” Schend said. “Then I’ll always taste the dish as it’s cooking to ensure the spice level is where I want it to be. This way I don’t have to add any additional seasonings after it gets to the table.”

Spices added to already cooked food can reintroduce salmonella risk back into your dish.

Hanson said the brand name of a spice could help people lower their risk of salmonella exposure. 

"The sad thing in the U.S. is the people buying these spices are people going to ethnic shops for spices that are harder to get in the U.S. Those populations know how to cook it well," he said. "If you're not familiar with a certain style of cooking, buy a name brand spice you can trust."

Symptoms of Salmonella Poisoning

Symptoms of salmonella poisoning can develop 12 to 72 hours after infection and typically last four to seven days.

Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include:

  • diarrhea
  • fever 
  • abdominal cramps

In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary, as the infection can spread to the intestines and blood stream. Antibiotics are often required to treat these cases, which can sometimes be fatal.

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