FDA targets processing of spices in bid to make supply safer

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Food and Drug Administration is reexamining the safety of a culinary staple found in every restaurant, food manufacturing plant and home kitchen pantry: spices.

In the middle of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella illness linked to black and red pepper -- and after 16 U.S. recalls since 2001 of tainted spices -- federal regulators met last week with the spice industry to figure out ways to make the supply safer.

Jeff Farrar, the FDA's associate commissioner for food safety, said the government wants the spice industry to do more to prevent contamination. That would include using one of three methods to rid spices of bacteria: irradiation, steam heating or fumigation with ethylene oxide, a pesticide.

"The bottom line is, if there are readily available validated processes out there to reduce the risk of contamination, our expectation is that they will use them," Farrar said. But the FDA cannot currently require it.

Legislation pending in Congress would require food companies to take steps, such as treating raw spices, to avoid contamination. The measure would also mandate that importers verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported foods. The House overwhelmingly approved the bill last year, but it has stalled in the Senate.

Recent spice recalls have involved contamination with salmonella, a group of bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, including birds. Most healthy people infected with salmonella recover within days, but the illness can be serious and even fatal for small children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

The ongoing outbreak of salmonella illness connected to black and crushed red pepper, which sparked a recall of those spices as well as salami products made with them, has been linked to 249 illnesses in 44 states and the District of Columbia. No deaths have been reported.

The long shelf life of spices and their widespread use make it difficult for health officials to detect an outbreak of illness and connect it to a particular spice.

Consumers often associate salmonella with poultry, meat and other moist foods. But microbiologists say that the bacterium can survive in dried spices for years and that it is tougher to kill in a dry environment.

Also, it takes only a small amount of salmonella in a dry environment to cause human illness, said Linda Harris, a microbiologist at the University of California at Davis.

Americans are eating more spices, consuming on average about 3.5 pounds in 2008, compared with 1.2 pounds in 1966, Agriculture Department records show.

Contamination of raw ingredients has long been a problem in the spice industry, according to Cheryl Deem, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association. "The vast majority of spices are cultivated outside of the U.S., where processing methods often result in contamination," she said.

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