Pepper does not have much of a “rap sheet.” The world’s most common spice, however, is a suspect in the current Salmonella Montevideo outbreak.
And pepper has some history when it comes to food safety.
Just last spring “Uncle Chen” white pepper was to be found contaminated with Salmonella after making 42 people sick in Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada.
Also in 2009, Adams Extract and Spice recalled some its spice products for possible Salmonella contamination. While one lot of its ground red pepper tested negative for Salmonella, another sample from the same lot came back positive.
Pak National Foods Limited and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) warned the public in August 2008 about possible Salmonella contamination for its National Black Pepper Powder. Pak withdrew it from the marketplace.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been on pepper’s case before. In 2005, it issued a report that looked at all spice recalls that occurred between 1970 and 2003. In “Recalls of Spices Due to Bacterial Contamination Monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: The Predominance of Salmonellae,” researchers said only two of 21 recalls during that period involved pepper.
While all but one of the spice-related recalls involved some strain of Salmonella, one recall involved black ground pepper and one involved red powder pepper. One spice recall, involving bay leaves, was for Listeria contamination.
The FDA report said spice consumption in the U.S. increased by 60 percent during the period and molds, fungi and bacteria could all be harbored on spices and cause human illnesses. Bacterial contamination is not unusual in dried spices.
Sixteen of the 21 spice recalls (76 percent) occurred between 2001 and 2004 and 12 involved imports. India, Spain, and Turkey each were countries of origin for multiple spice recalls.
The U.S. imports most spices, measured by weight, from China, Honduras, and Mexico.
“Relatively little information exists concerning the prevalence of Salmonella in spices,” the FDA study reported. It cited an Australian study that found Salmonella in 8.2 percent of black peppercorn samples.
Differences in spice-harvesting methods are thought to contribute to microbial counts, along with steps in production and distribution.
The reason for more recent recalls of spices is probably due to stepped up inspections by FDA and Florida’s Department of Agriculture, which experienced a problem with spices in 2001.
Going further back, Norway experienced an outbreak of Salmonella oranienburg in 1981-82 that was eventually linked to contaminated pepper in bags and boxes that was imported from Brazil through Germany. The bad pepper sickened 126 with one-fourth to one-half of those requiring hospitalization.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta Monday reproted the current Salmonella Montevideo outbreak, where pepper is a suspected source, has made 187 sick in 39 states including 37 victims who have required hospitalization. So far, no deaths have been attributed to the outbreak.
Rhode Island-based Daniele’s Inc. has recalled 1.24 million pounds of salami sold by major retailers like Costco, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Kroger and Amazon.com because the meat product or one of its ingredients may be contaminated with Salmonella. CDC confirmed Monday that a private laboratory found Salmonella in a Daniele product, but not the outbreak strain.
It continues to hunt for a “widely distributed contaminated food product” that might have caused the illnesses.
Pepper remains on the suspect list.