F.D.A. calls spice safety into question

by Keith Nunes
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WASHINGTON – A draft risk profile of spices conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and published Oct. 30 indicates pathogen contamination and filth may be a systemic problem throughout the spice supply chain. The risk profile was initiated in response to outbreaks of food-borne illness caused by the consumption of Salmonella-contaminated spices in the United States.

Failures identified in the farm-to-table food safety system potentially leading to adulteration of consumed spices generally arose from poor or inconsistent application of preventive controls, the F.D.A. said. The risk profile study identified 14 spice/seasoning-associated outbreaks worldwide that occurred from 1973 to 2010, resulting in less than 2,000 reported human illnesses and 128 hospitalizations worldwide.

The F.D.A. said the relatively small number of outbreaks identified may be attributable in part to the application of preventive controls by the spice and food manufacturing industries, including pathogen reduction treatments, and cooking during food preparation. Consumer tendency to eat small amounts of spices with meals generally lowers the probability of illness from contaminated spices relative to similarly contaminated foods consumed in larger amounts. The agency added it is also possible illnesses caused by contaminated spices are underreported, particularly because of challenges related to attribution for minor ingredients in multi-ingredient foods.

The F.D.A. said it is taking steps to strengthen spice safety and that the agency has increased inspections of spice manufacturing facilities in recent years. The agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition also is working with several partners to develop a training center focused on supply chain management for spices and botanical ingredients. As part of the program, the F.D.A. has provided food safety training in India, a leading country of origin for U.S. spice importation.

The American Spice Trade Association, Washington, said that for the draft risk profile “F.D.A. used sampling and testing at ports of entry into the U.S. and reported on its findings of pathogens such as Salmonella, and filth, such as insects and animal hair, in spices. Much of the spice presented at import is essentially a raw agricultural commodity that will undergo extensive cleaning, processing and treatment for pathogens once it enters the U.S. to ensure it is clean and free of microbial contamination.

“The spice industry employs a variety of equipment to physically clean spices including air separators, sifters and spiral gravity separators that separate sticks, stones, hair, insects and other debris from the spice. These techniques are designed to ensure finished product complies with F.D.A. defect action levels for food-permissible ‘levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans, such as insect fragments and rodent hairs.’ Foods covered by the agency’s defect action levels include canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, jams, juices, peanut butter, popcorn, chocolate, raisins, noodles, cornmeal, wheat flour and spices.”

The F.D.A. said pathogen reduction treatments are not applied uniformly to all types of spices or all lots of spice of a given type at a secondary processing stage. The efficacy of the most commonly applied pathogen reduction treatment methods – steam, irradiation and ethylene oxide – is dependent on a variety of conditions, which may alter reductions by order of magnitude. The F.D.A. said no studies have systematically examined the efficacy of processes for reductions of Salmonella in spices.

The draft risk profile is available on the F.D.A.’s web site and may be viewed by clicking here.
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