Before being cleaned, treated and processed for sale, an estimated 6.6 percent of spices imported to the U.S. between fiscal year (FY) 2007 and FY2009 had a prevalence of Salmonella and roughly 12 percent were contaminated with filth like insect parts, whole insects, rodent hairs, dirt and other matter, according to a draft risk profile released Oct. 30 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The numbers in the risk profile sparked sensational headlines, but several caveats noted in the profile make these numbers less alarming.
FDA's risk profile says that only 14 reported illness outbreaks in nine countries were attributed to consumption of pathogen-contaminated spice between 1973 and 2010. These outbreaks resulted in 1,946 reported human illnesses, 128 hospitalizations and two deaths. More than half of the spice-attributed illnesses came from the largest outbreak in Germany in 1993 when an estimated 1,000 cases of Salmonella illness occurred. Countries reporting outbreaks were Canada (1 outbreak), Denmark (1), France (1), Germany (2), New Zealand (1), Norway (1), Serbia (1), United Kingdom (3), and the United States (3).
FDA highlights several reasons for the relatively low number of spice-attributed outbreaks. Many spices are subjected to one or more treatments like canning or cooking which are capable of killing pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella during food preparation. Spices are also consumed in very small amounts so the Salmonella dose expected from consumption of spice during a single eating occasion is expected to be smaller than that for other foods with similar concentrations of contamination but consumed in larger quantities.
Spice and food trade organizations have also pointed out that food manufacturers often treat imported spices before they go to market, so the estimated contamination levels derived from FDA import screening programs don't accurately reflect the danger posed to consumers.
"For the draft risk profile, the FDA 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," according to a statement from the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA). "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."
"A more accurate assessment of safety would result from testing the end products that consumers use they have been processed and cleaned," said American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) President Michael McGuffin.
FDA also notes that after the data was collected for this risk profile, the spice industry developed detailed guidance to prevent and control adulteration of finished spice or food products. ASTA published in guidance in 2011 for good agricultural practices (GAPs) for growing and harvesting spices, supply chain approval and re-evaluation programs, good manufacturing practices (GMPs), validated microbial reduction processes, ASTA Cleanliness Specifications, post-treatment sampling and testing program, environmental sampling and testing program, and the development of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans.
The report also highlights the challenges of generating accurate data about spice-attributed outbreaks. FDA says its numbers are limited because of underreporting and challenges in foodborne disease surveillance and outbreak response. FDA notes that the long shelf-life of spices and the ability of pathogens to persist in spice for long periods also create challenges for outbreak identification because illnesses from consumption of contaminated spice may be separated by time and space.