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.”
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Explore This IssueDecember/January 2020
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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.
“The highest priority of ASTA is ensuring clean, safe spice for American consumers,” Shumow emphasizes. “The association facilitates food safety in a number of ways, including the development of technical guidance, white papers, research, analytical detection methods, and education.”
To this point, another ASTA offering is its Check Sample Program, which is proficiency testing designed to evaluate spice laboratories for a common range of analyses that are significant to the spice trade, Shumow explains. “Proficiency testing is the analysis of samples in conjunction with other laboratories testing the same sample type at the same time,” she elaborates. “The program allows individual laboratories to evaluate their performance and set goals for improvement and consistency in analyses.”
Guidance for Industry
ASTA publishes Clean, Safe Spice Guidance, which includes references to FSMA and information related to the FDA’s Reportable Food Registry, Shumow says. “ASTA has worked and continues to work with companies and other associations to disseminate this guidance throughout the supply chain,” she relates. “ASTA also collaborates with organizations in spice-producing regions of the world to provide education and resources on food safety and good agricultural practices for spice farmers and processors.”
Publicly available resources include ASTA’s Identification and Prevention of Adulteration Guidance Document, Good Manufacturing Practice Guide for Spices, Good Agricultural Practices Guide, and HACCP Guide for Spices and Seasonings. “Likewise, ASTA offers several resources for non-member purchase, including an analytical methods manual and recorded webinar series,” Shumow adds.
Educational and training resources for member companies are another offering in the ASTA toolbox, Shumow adds. “Webinars and workshops are regularly offered for the industry,” she relates. “Recent topics covered by expert speakers have included whole-genome sequencing, new research on allergens, traceability/blockchain technology, and validation of spice process controls.”
Changing Concerns with Spice Safety
Issues with spices have changed over the years, says Martin Mitchell, chairman emeritus of Certified Laboratories, Inc. “Prior to the 2000s, 90 percent of spice industry concerns focused on product quality parameters, like cleanliness, color values, and volatile oil content,” he relates. “Today, as Laura Shumow points out, bacterial contamination, particularly with Salmonella, is the major concern.
Based in Melville, N.Y., Certified Laboratories is an independent laboratory specializing in microbiological and chemical analyses of numerous foods and beverages, including spices. The firm also maintains operations in Aurora, Ill., Turlock, Calif., and Buena Park, Calif. Certified participates in the ASTA Check Sample Program, Mitchell notes.
Mitchell says Certified does the majority of the independent testing of spices in the U.S. “We test for most all of the ASTA members, as well as spice companies throughout the world,” he relates.
A long-time ASTA member, Mitchell has served on the board of directors, and is a member and former chair of the Food Safety Committee. He was also a member of the ASTA Methods sub-committee that developed and approved the official ASTA testing methods for spices.
“In the early 2000s, there was some talk in the industry about Salmonella, but it was not universally accepted as a concern, especially since Salmonella does not proliferate on dry spices,” Mitchell says. “But it has evolved to a major effort to control bacterial contamination, since by the mid-2000s Salmonella and other pathogens were traced to spices. At that time most spices came into the country untreated and any bacteria present were not necessarily treated upon arrival.”
Most imported spices are now cleaned and subjected to a kill step by the U.S. processors when they take possession, Mitchell continues. “And there are now industry expectations for a validated kill step, documented sanitation controls, and pathogen testing for all spices, so they are sold to food manufacturers, food service customers, and consumers pathogen free,” he emphasizes.
Mitchell concurs with Shumow that adulteration is another major concern in the spice industry. “Some imported ground spices from Third-World countries are coming in adulterated,” he elaborates. “For example, lead and lead chromate have been found in cumin and turmeric, and Sudan dyes have been identified in red pepper. Herbs such as sumac have been added to ground oregano.”
Industry deals with the problem by requiring certificates of analysis for all imported spices, and also by testing imported product, Mitchell says. “The standard is zero tolerance for chemicals and foreign botanical matter mixed in with pure spices,” he points out. “Adulteration is not a problem with spices originating in the U.S. But some countries with less oversight are selling ground spices, so the risk of adulteration has become both a food safety and quality issue.”
New Proficiency Test
Fapas, the proficiency testing arm of Fera Science Ltd., Sand Hutton, York, UK, introduced on Sept. 1, 2019, a proficiency test for contamination of cumin with the allergens sesame and gluten.
The process begins when a customer orders proficiency testing materials online from the Fapas website, according to Mark Sykes, MS, Fera’s lead senior scientist for proficiency testing. “The testing materials are shipped to the laboratory on the advertised date,” Sykes relates. “The laboratory then analyzes the test materials using their own method—for allergens this is typically an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA)—and submits its results to Fapas online, before the closing date.”
For this new Fapas offering, there is just one test, but two test materials are provided to each participant and the results are grouped and assessed according to the brand of ELISA kit they used, Sykes explains. “The Fapas online site for entry of results has a list of commonly available commercial ELISA test kits and participants select the one they have used,” he elaborates.
“The results receive rigorous statistical analysis by Fapas’ proficiency testing experts,” Sykes says. “A confidential report is published online for the customer, typically within 15 days of test results submission. Fapas can also provide interlaboratory reports for multiple connected laboratories that show an overview of global performance.”
This new sesame and gluten proficiency test for cumin adds to Fapas’s current portfolio of proficiency tests that address the potential for contamination of spices. “The Fapas portfolio also includes black pepper, chili powder, ginger, paprika, turmeric, and garlic powder,” Sykes notes.