Over the last several years, there have been multiple outbreaks linked to, and recalls of, various kinds of spices. From white pepper, to red pepper, to black pepper and beyond, spices are a potentially ideal vehicle for the transmission of foodborne disease. More and more people are becoming ill from contaminated spices, and more and more recalls are occurring. So is this problem merely an emerging threat? Or is it a problem that food producers must confront here and now, finding ways to better ensure the safety of the consumers they profit from.
Spice outbreaks in recent history:
1. Veggie Booty
In May 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began a multi-state investigation in response to an increase in laboratory reports, first posted on PulseNet on April 2, 2007, of Salmonella Wandsworth. Salmonella Wandsworth is a very rare serotype that was never before implicated in a U.S. outbreak. As of September 6, 2007, there were 69 reported cases of Salmonella Wandsworth in 23 states and 14 cases of Salmonella Typhimurium in six states who became ill after consuming Veggie Booty, a puffed vegetable snack food with a raw, dried vegetable coating. A total of 61 bags of Veggie Booty were ultimately tested in twelve states. Salmonella was isolated from thirteen of them. Eleven of the thirteen bags were positive for the outbreak strain of Salmonella Wandsworth, and one bag was positive for Salmonella Typhimurium and Enterobacter sakazakii. One bag also tested positive for Salmonella Kentucky, and Salmonella Haifa and Saintpaul were isolated from other bags.
The Union International Food outbreak sickened more than 79 people in Western states between December 2008 and April 2009; the majority of the illnesses were in California. Public health officials traced the outbreak to white pepper manufactured by Union International and sold under the brand names Uncle Chen and Lian How. Ultimately the company recalled more than 50 products, including spices, oils, and sauces, due to potential contamination with Salmonella.
This outbreak and recall is, of course, still going on. According to the CDC just days ago, 238 individuals infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Montevideo, which displays either of two closely related pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) patterns, have been reported from 44 states and District of Columbia since July 1, 2009. Epidemiological investigation showed that these 238 sick people all ate Daniele Inc salami products contaminated by salmonella. Daniele used salmonella-contaminated pepper in the production of the various kinds of recalled salami.
Will the Johnny’s recall, announced today out of Tacoma, Washington, be another recall or outbreak to add to this list? The ingredient list for the recalled prodcut states that it contains: ‘MSG, Wheat, Soy & Milk; Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (corn, soy, wheat), yeast extract, salt, rice flour, monosodium glutamate, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (soy & cottonseed), caramel color, whey solids, non-fat milk solids, mono & diglycerides." Only time will tell, hopefully, what happened at Johnny’s to prompt today’s recall. Spices? Certainly possible.
The historical trend:
These kinds of events naturally prompt the question why are we suddenly seeing outbreaks and recalls linked to pepper and other spices. Is this truly a new phenomenon; a new species of failure by food importers and producers?