NEW DELHI — About 12 percent of spices brought to the United States are contaminated with insects parts, whole insects, rodent hairs and other things, according to an analysis of spice imports by federal food authorities.
The finding by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is part of a comprehensive look at the safety of spice imports that has been years in the making. The federal authorities also found that nearly 7 percent of spice imports examined by federal inspectors were contaminated with salmonella, a toxic bacteria that can cause severe illness in humans.
In a report released Wednesday, the FDA says testing of imported spices between 2007 and 2010 showed that spices were twice as likely as other inspected foods to be contaminated with the salmonella. More than 80 types of salmonella were detected.
The agency decided to study the issue as several spice-related outbreaks have caused illnesses around the globe. In 2009 and 2010, black pepper and red pepper from India, Vietnam and China used in salami caused hundreds of illnesses.
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The FDA says there have been 14 known outbreaks around the world since 1973, causing almost 2,000 illnesses, many of which were in children.
The FDA says that during the study period, 749 shipments of spice were refused entry into the United States because of salmonella contamination while 238 other shipments were denied because of the presence of what the FDA calls “filth”: insects, excrement, hair or other materials.
The agency’s findings “are a wake-up call” to spice producers, said Jane Van Doren, a food and spice official at the FDA. “It means: ‘Hey, you haven’t solved the problems.’”
The agency labeled spice contamination “a systemic challenge” and said that most of the insects found in spices were kinds that thrive in warehouses and other storage facilities, suggesting the industry’s problems result not from poor harvesting practices but from poor storage and processing.
John Hallagan, a spokesman for the American Spice Trade Association, said Wednesday that he had not seen the report and could not comment on it. But spice manufacturers have said food manufacturers often treat imported spices before marketing them, so FDA findings of contamination levels in its import screening program do not mean spices sold to consumers are dangerous.
FDA inspectors have found that some spices that claim to have been treated are contaminated nonetheless. And the high levels of filth from insects and rodents is a problem that is not easily resolved because, unlike with salmonella contamination, simply cooking or heating the spices will not rid the products of the problem. Insects can also be a source of salmonella contamination.
What share of the nearly 1.2 million annual salmonella illnesses in the United States result from contaminated spices is unclear, officials said. Fewer than 2,000 people had their illnesses definitively tied to contaminated spices from 1973 to 2010, and most people eat spices in small quantities.
But people often fail to remember eating spices when asked what foods might have sickened them, so problems related to spices could be seriously underreported, officials said.
Recent U.S. legislation grants the FDA the power to refuse entry of foods that the agency even suspects might be contaminated, strong leverage to demand changes in harvesting, handling and manufacturing practices in foreign countries.
Spice imports from Mexico and India have been found to have the highest rate of contamination. Nearly one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India, according to the FDA.
The FDA commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, had intended to visit India this fall and meet with spice-industry officials to discuss the agency’s concerns about spice safety, but the government shutdown delayed her plans, she said. Indian spice officials are offering incentives to get farmers to change some traditional harvest and handling practices that could lead to contamination.
Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, said the spice industry needed to clean up poor storage practices, a difficult task. “There is no magic wand for any of the problem we’re addressing,” he said.
Taylor said food-safety rules proposed this year aiming to make imported and domestic food safer on farms and in processing facilities should help reduce spice contamination. The proposed rules include regulations that will require food importers to better understand where the food they bring into the country has been.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.