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Forget your wallet — what’s in your spice rack?

The federal government has been trying to figure out what’s in your spice rack for several years now, and with the completion of a 24-month reconnaissance mission the Food and Drug Administration is ready to begin its homework.

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Previous government research had revealed that the presence of pathogens, in particular Salmonella, is a “systemic challenge” in the spice industry worldwide. That research, reported in FDA’s 2013 “Draft Risk Profile on Pathogens and Filth in Spices,” showed spice shipments from 37 out of 79 countries were contaminated with Salmonella.

Spice shipments to the U.S. from 2007-2009 were twice as likely as all other FDA-regulated imported foods to be contaminated with Salmonella, according to FDA’s data.

“We also found that approximately 12 percent of the spice shipments offered for entry to the U.S. during a three-year period — FY 2007 to FY 2009 — were adulterated with filth such as insects and animal hair, which can result from inadequate packing or storage conditions,” according to the risk profile.

That was enough for the agency to dig deeper, so investigators went shopping.

“The FDA is analyzing a recently completed two-year, nationwide study to collect data on the presence of Salmonella in retail packages (of spice) which you would find in supermarkets, ethnic markets, discount stores, and on the internet,” agency officials said in a news release.

The agency collected a total of 7,249 retail packages of spices and is “still analyzing the data.” Spices collected were: basil, black pepper, oregano, paprika, red pepper (capsicum), coriander, cumin, curry powder, garlic, sesame seed and white pepper.

At this point, the agency is not making any new recommendations to consumers or issuing any specific warnings about any imported or domestic spices. The FDA has not indicated when final test results from the retail samples will be available.

History shows potential for problems

From 1973-2010, there were 14 reported foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to consumption of pathogen-contaminated spice. The outbreaks resulted in a total of 1,946 illnesses, 128 hospitalizations and two deaths, according to the FDA statistics.

“To reduce the risks of foodborne illness from contaminated spices, the FDA has been addressing spice safety on several fronts, including as part of new rules, under the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), to establish preventive controls in the food supply chain, for both domestically produced and imported food,” agency officials said in the news release.

The average American annually consumes about 3.5 pounds — not counting dehydrated garlic — according to estimates by the FDA. The vast majority of that 3.5 pounds is imported. The agency reported is does not have contamination data specifically for domestically produced spices.

“Most of the U.S. spice supply is imported, with some exceptions. Most of the dehydrated onion used in the U.S. is produced in the U.S.,” according to the risk profile. “U.S. farms also produce significant amounts of the U.S. supply of dehydrated garlic, capsicum and mustard seed.”

It’s still not rocket science

FDA officials expressed confidence that they understand how pathogens such as Salmonella are getting into spices headed for kitchens across America.

Simply keeping pests under control and treating spices with a kill step would likely take care of much of the pathogen problem, according to FDA.

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“Failures identified in the farm-to-table food safety system potentially leading to adulteration of consumed spice generally arose from poor/inconsistent application of appropriate preventive controls, such as failing to limit animal access to the spice source plant during harvest or drying phases, failing to limit insect and rodent access to spice during storage, or failing to subject all spice to an effective pathogen reduction treatment or other lethality step,” FDA reported.

“Based on our research, we concluded that knowledge and technology are available to significantly reduce the risk of illness from consumption of contaminated spices in the United States.”

The FDA is also working with officials in other countries to improve food safety in the spice supply chain.

The agency has staff permanently stationed in China, India, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In India, the leading country of origin for U.S. spice importation, the FDA maintains offices in New Delhi and Mumbai.

FDA scientists are also scheduled to participate in the newly formed Codex Committee on Spices and Culinary Herbs. Codex is an international organization that sets food safety standards, guidelines and codes of practice.

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