Do Imported Spices Pose a Health Risk?

In response to concerns over the effectiveness of current control measures to reduce or prevent illness from consumption of spices in the U.S., the FDA released its report “Draft Risk Profile: Pathogens and Filth in Spices” on October 30th. What followed was a string of media coverage alerting the public that their spices can contain anything from whole insects to rodent feces.

In fact, the reported noted that about 12 percent of spices brought to the U.S. are contaminated with insect parts, whole insects, rodent hairs, and other things.

Following the release of the FDA report, American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) quickly assured American consumers that the spices sold under “reputable and trusted brands at their local grocery store are clean and safe to enjoy.”

According to a statement from ASTA, “For the draft risk profile, the FDA used sampling and testing at ports of entry into the U.S. and reported on its findings of pathogens such as Salmonella, and filth, such as insects and animal hair, in spices. Much of the spice presented at import is essentially a raw agricultural commodity that will undergo extensive cleaning, processing and treatment for pathogens once it enters the U.S. to ensure it is clean and free of microbial contamination.”

The risk profile identifies the most commonly occurring microbial hazards and filth in spices and quantifies, where possible, the prevalence and levels of these adulterants at different points along the supply chain. It also identifies potential sources of contamination throughout farm-to-table food safety and evaluates the efficacy of current mitigation and control options designed to reduce the public health risk. 

“Nearly all of the insects found in spice samples were stored product pests, indicating inadequate packing or storage conditions,” according to the draft report.

The FDA identified three illness outbreaks attributed to spices in the U.S. in the 37 year period from 1973 to 2010. However, this relatively small number maybe due to the public’s tendency to eat small amounts of spices with meals, lowering the probability of illness from contaminated spices. It’s also possible that illnesses caused by contaminated spices are underreported because of the challenges in attributing minor ingredients in multi-ingredient foods.

The risk profile is being used to provide information for FDA to use in the development of plans to reduce or prevent illness from contaminated spices. The comment period for the risk profile ends on January 3, 2014.

The FDA is also working with Codex Alimentarius, an international commission that sets food standards, guidelines, and codes of practice. FDA scientists who serve as delegates to the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene co-chair (with a representative from India) a working group of the Committee, which has been charged to revise the Code of Hygienic Practices for Spices and Dried Aromatic Herbs.

In addition, FDA scientists also will participate in the newly formed Codex Committee on Spices and Culinary Herbs. The committee will be hosted and chaired by India—spice imports from India and Mexico have been found to have the highest rate of contamination.


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