January 22, 2018

FDA Releases Risk Profile on Pathogens and Filth in Spices

Over the years, there have been recalls for pathogens and filth in spices. The USDA recently completed a report about the risk of Salmonella in imported spices. In that report, scientists found that about 14% of spices from Mexico were contaminated. The FDA has now released a draft profile on the risk of contamination in spices and the steps it plans to take to improve safety.

Whole and Crushed SpicesPathogens found in spices range from Salmonella, Bacillus, Clostridium perfringens, Cronobacter, Shigella, and Staphylococcus aureus. Filth adulterants include insects, excrement, hair, and other materials such as decomposed parts, wood slivers, twigs, staples, stones, plastic, and rubber bands.

During the time period of 1973 – 2010, fourteen illness outbreak were attributed to the consumption of pathogen-contaminated spices around the world, resulting in 1946 illnesses, 128 hospitalizations and two deaths. Salmonella species were the main pathogen in these outbreaks, accounting for 87% of reported illnesses. The latest outbreak in the United States was in July 2009 to April 2010, linked to black and red pepper on Italian-style salami imported from Vietnam, India, and China. Salmonella Montevideo and Salmonella Senftenberg were the pathogens; 283 people were sickened. Epidemiological evidence indicated that the pepper was contaminated after the shipments were imported into the United States.

The study found that the small number of outbreaks were attributed in part to preventive controls by industry, and cooking during food preparation. In addition, people use small amounts of spices in cooking, and this reduces the probability of illness, relative to other contaminated foods eaten in larger quantities, such as chicken.

But the study also found that pathogen reduction treatments aren’t uniformly applied to all spices or all lots of spice. Distribution channels are very complex, with multiple locations and packing steps over long periods of time. Inappropriate packing or storage can introduce pathogens to the product.

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 gives the FDA new tools to mitigate and control contamination, including authority to mandate recalls and increase the frequency of inspections. Failures in the farm-to-table food safety system usually occur because of poor application of preventive controls.

The FDA recommends steam treatments, gamma radiation, microwave heating, dry heat, hydrostatic high pressure, pulsed light, pulsed electric field, high pressure CO2, x-rays, and electron beam. Most spices are imported into the U.S. The overall prevalence of Salmonella-contaminated imported spice is 6.6%, which is 1.9 times the prevalence for other shipments of FDA-regulated foods during the same time period. Salmonella is a general problem in the spice supply chain.

The FDA wants industry and government guidance documents updated, along with education and training for spice producers. Formalizing programs such as the Indian EIC certificate program should be undertaken, and regulatory systems in spice producing countries should be strengthened. In addition, storage practices for spices should be improved, as well as public Alert communications improvement.

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