Variety is the spice of life, and spices add so much variety to life. Treasured as trade goods for thousands of years, spices are used not only to season and preserve food, they have been embraced as medicines, dyes and perfumes dating back to ancient times. The word spice comes from the Latin species, which means “wares.”
In the culinary world, spices are aromatic flavorings originating from seeds (fennel, mustard, nutmeg, and black pepper, for example), fruits (cayenne pepper), bark (cinnamon), flower buds (cloves), stigmas (saffron), roots (turmeric and ginger), and other plant parts.
Spices were a primary driver for early maritime and land trade routes developed between Europe and Asia, and remain a significant focus of international trade. In 2018, more than 22,000 metric tons of spices valued at $111 million were exported from the U.S, while imports of nearly 412,000 metric tons were valued at $1.76 billion, according to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service’s Global Agricultural Trade System. (A metric ton equals 2,204.6 pounds.) As with other food products, especially ones that are exchanged globally, spices are subject to food safety and quality concerns.
Microbial Hazard Concerns
The most important food safety issue that the spice industry deals with today is the need to manage the potential for contamination by microbial hazards, according to Laura Shumow, MHS, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA).
Founded in 1907, the Washington, D.C.-based ASTA bills itself as “the voice of the U.S. spice industry in the global market.” “ASTA represents the interests of approximately 200 members including companies that grow, dehydrate, and process spices,” Shumow relates.
ASTA’s members include U.S.-based agents, brokers, and importers. There are also member companies based outside of the U.S. that grow spices and ship them to the U.S. and other companies associated with the U.S. spice industry. “ASTA members manufacture and market the majority of spices sold in the U.S. for industrial, food service, and consumer use,” Shumow elaborates.
Shumow points out that most spices require tropical or subtropical conditions to grow. “That means spices are typically grown in developing countries where sanitation and food handling practices may not always be adequate,” she says. “Like all agricultural products, spices are commonly exposed to dust, dirt, insects, and animal waste before they are harvested. Then there are additional opportunities for contamination during primary processing, storage, and transportation. Much of the spices imported in the United States are essentially a raw agricultural commodity that will undergo extensive cleaning, processing, and treatment for pathogens once they enter the U.S. to ensure it is clean and free of microbial contamination.”
Salmonella Control Is Essential
Foodborne illness attributed to spices is rare. But relative to potential microbial hazards that can affect spices, Shumow says that Salmonella, in particular, is a pathogen that must be controlled by treatment. “Spice companies use a variety of treatment methods to control for Salmonella, including ethylene oxide, propylene oxide, steam, and irradiation,” Shumow notes. “This treatment is an essential food safety step in the spice supply chain. Spice companies must comply with the Preventive Controls for Human Food rule under the Food Safety Modernization Act.”
The FDA basically defaults to a 5-log reduction of pathogens, Shumow says. “However, the FDA has advised ASTA it would accept a different approach if scientific evidence demonstrated the process would adequately control the hazard, and conversely could require a 6-log reduction if it would be reasonably foreseeable that the food could be contaminated with more than 100 colony-forming units per gram,” she explains.
Quality issues related to spices include the potential to contain foreign material, as well as low levels of environmental contaminants, Shumow says. “These issues do not usually present a food safety issue, but are managed to ensure products meet quality and regulatory standards,” she explains. “Spice companies may rely on supply chain controls such as sampling and testing, specifications, and supplier audits to mitigate these types of quality issues. The spice industry also employs a variety of equipment to physically clean spices, including air separators, sifters, and spiral gravity separators that separate sticks, stones, hair, insects, and other debris from the spice. These techniques are designed to ensure finished product complies with industry and regulatory specifications.