Microbial and Filth Contaminants in Common Spices

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First, it was the 2008-2009 Salmonella outbreak in the United States caused by adulterated white ground pepper. Then it was the subsequent 2010 outbreak caused by products containing black and red pepper. In a time when most foodborne illness can be attributed to fresh produce, these two recent and closely-timed Salmonella outbreaks brought attention to the ongoing importance of monitoring potentially harmful spices.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a study from 2007-2009 (results from which were ultimately published in June 2013’s Food Microbiology publication) examining 20,000 imported shipments of spices. What the FDA found was extremely alarming. Approximately 7% of the imported spices tested positive for salmonella, twice the average of all other imported foods.

The FDA believes these events and the researched data seriously question the system in place to identify and prevent spice-related foodborne outbreaks. As a result, the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) has developed a Draft Risk Profile for Pathogens and Filth in Spices.

What Is Being Found in Our Spices?

The FDA profile reported two categories of contaminants found in spices: microbial and filth.

  • Microbes found in spices during study included Salmonella, Bacillus cereus, Clostridium perfringens, Shigella, and Staphylococcus.
  • Filth adulterants, on the other hand, included live and dead insects (and insect parts), excrement from insects and animals, hair from animals and humans, and other random substances such as stones, twigs, plastics, synthetic fibers, and bird barbs.

Why Is Contaminant Identification So Important?

Beyond the generally disconcerting nature of the FDA's findings, identification of the contaminants being found in spices is a matter of public health. The inability to monitor and regulate spices has caused nearly two thousand deaths in the world from 1973 to 2010. Fourteen foodborne illness outbreaks were reported around the world due to pathogen-contaminated spices, and as a result, 1,946 people were reportedly made ill, 128 were hospitalized, and two people died.

The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that approximately 1.2 million Americans are infected by Salmonella each year and approximately 400 of those people die as a result of the infection. By identifying the contaminants, both microbial and filth, found in imported spices, regulatory agencies are in a better position to protect the population from future foodborne illness outbreaks.

Potential Future Mitigation and Control Options

The FDA believes that modifying current techniques already in place to combat contaminated spices could prove effective and has since provided additional prevention methods for use in the future, including:

Primary Production

  • Update the produce industry and government guidance documents to reflect current knowledge and practices and improve the utility of these documents by creating flexible communication platforms.
  • Enhance training education for spice primary producers.

Distribution and Storage

  • FDA to work with governments of spice-producing countries to enhance food safety oversight by developing and formalizing programs such as the Indian EIC certificate program.
  • Strengthen the capacity of regulatory systems in spice source countries.
  • Improve storage practices for spices.
  • FDA to improve Import Alert communication.

Primary and Secondary Processing

  • FDA, industry, and academic experts to work together to develop regulations and potentially provide guidance for the spice industry on developing food safety plans that include preventative controls.
  • Enhance education training for primary and secondary spice processors.
  • FDA to develop guidance for industry on the criteria recommended for validation of spice pathogen reduction treatment processes.
  • Increase (or mandate) application of validated pathogen reduction treatments for reduction of Salmonella to all spices intended for human consumption in the United States at an appropriate point before or after packaging.
  • FDA and spice industry increase inspections of foreign and domestic spice warehouses, spice processing, and spice pathogen reduction treatment facilities that include environmental sampling and assess compliance with Current Good Manufacturing Processes.

Retail/End User

  • FDA to work with CDC and state governments to develop methods to facilitate collection of spice consumption and purchase information from individual cases and restaurant sub-clusters during outbreak investigations.
  • Increase efforts and improve strategies to identify the root cause of ingredient contamination including whether growth in the food or environment contributed to the outbreak.
  • Public health agency scientists involved in outbreak investigations to enumerate pathogens in samples of food and ingredients in the food chain that have been identified as having strains identical to the outbreak strain.
  • Develop new strategies to identify related illnesses attributed to spices or other low-moisture/long shelf-life foods.
  • FDA, spice industry, and foreign governments to work together to develop guidance, and potentially regulations, to improve traceability during outbreaks of illness from spices.
  • Report recalls arising from contamination based on serving size of the product recalled in addition to the amount recalled.

​​General Methods

  • Increase surveillance of pathogens other than Salmonella in spices and in human cases of foodborne illness.
  • Educate and train regulatory partners, and reach out to countries and food trade organizations to communicate common spice hazards and available preventive controls.
  • Improve the understanding and application of appropriate sample designs and analytical protocols for spice (and environmental) sampling for pathogens.
  • FDA to communicate with the spice industry as a whole when observations suggest that the application of current preventive controls for pathogens and filth in spices may not be adequate.
  • FDA to communicate with spice-producing countries when observations suggest that the application of current preventive controls for pathogens and filth in spices may not be adequate.
  • Overhaul FDA product codes to allow for better identification of products and more precise tracking and trending of products by the FDA.

For more information on the FDA's findings, the Draft Risk Profile for Pathogens and Filth in Spices can be viewed in its entirety online.

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Article Sources

  • "Draft Risk Profile: Pathogens and Filth in Spices."U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.2013.
  • Doren, Jane M. Van, Daria Kleinmeier, Thomas S. Hammack, and Ann Westerman. "Prevalence, Serotype Diversity, and Antimicrobial Resistance of Salmonella in Imported Shipments of Spice Offered for Entry to the United States, FY2007–FY2009."Food Microbiology34.2 (2013): 239-51