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?
The combination of Google and about 5 spare minutes will show you that spice problems are, by no means, a new phenomenon. As stated in a 2006 Journal of Food Protection article (“Journal article”): "We reviewed spice recalls that took place in the United States from fiscal years 1970 to 2003. During the study period, the FDA monitored 21 recalls involving 12 spice types contaminated with bacterial pathogens." See Journal of Food Protection, Vol. 69, No. 1, 2006, Pages 233–237(Recalls of Spices Due to Bacterial Contamination Monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: The Predominance of Salmonellae). See article at: http://www.cdc.gov/enterics/publications/381_vij.pdf.
Indeed, as the name of the Journal article suggests, the problem of spice contamination has long been known. And not only that, it has long been known to be predominantly one of Salmonella contamination specifically.
Defining the problem:
Lest we delude ourselves into believing that the risk is not that great, it is clear that spice outbreaks are on the rise. The Journal article further states that “Although five of these recalls transpired during the preceding 30 years (one each in 1971, 1983, 1989, 1995, and 1996), the remaining 16 (76%) occurred during fiscal years 2001 to 2004.” And the other outbreaks described above (i.e. Veggie Booty, Union International, Wholesome/Overseas, and possibly Johnny’s) are too recent to have been included in the Journal article’s study.
But to add even further concern, it is evident that counting recalls and outbreaks may only partially define the problem. The Journal article further notes that, of the 105,440 spice brands imported at the time into the US, 258 were coded as "refusals" and were thus prevented access to US markets:
178 (69%) were refused because the manufacturer had a history of shipping Salmonella-contaminated spices. In 131 (74%) of these 178 refusals, the importer chose not to challenge the refusal; in 44 (25%) instances, Salmonella was shown to be present by laboratory analysis. In the remaining three (1%) instances, the spices were refused because of the presence of mold or filth.
Thus, upon inspection, there were an additional 258 refusals of spice products during the one year period analyzed, thereby preventing those contaminated spices from being included in the Journal article’s analysis. Admittedly, some were refused entry only because of past problems associated with the exporter, and some due to contamination by mold or other filth, but 44 were refused entry because they were, in fact, contaminated.
Where do all these contaminated spices come from? Again, the Journal article:
The country of origin of the spice was known for 15 recalls: 12 involved imported spices (India [three recalls], Spain [three recalls], Turkey [two recalls], and one recall each from Egypt, Jamaica, Mexico, and Taiwan), and the remaining three involved domestically produced spices (two recalls due to Salmonella and one recall due to L. monocytogenes).
Overall, there were 6,112 unique spice manufacturers in the 129 nations from which the United States imported spices; the three countries with the leading numbers of spice manufacturers were India (629 manufacturers), China (547), and Mexico (441). During fiscal year 2003, there were 9,911 unique spice consignees in the United States who purchased imported spices. Approximately 85% of the spices imported in fiscal year 2003 were produced in China, and the next four leading spice exporters to the United States—Honduras, Mexico, Lebanon, and Peru—contributed an additional 13%.
Further defining the problem:
As we know from past experience with food products, certain items are more susceptible to contamination, or to causing higher rates of infection and illness, due to their very nature. For instance, ground beef is a risky food because of the oftentimes preventable contamination that is so rampant in the production process. And lettuce and other leafy greens are susceptible to contamination because they are grown in an environment particularly capable of causing the contamination.
Spices have numerous “performance characteristics” that make them a ready vehicle for contamination and illness. First, they are generally a dried product that have a long shelf-life . . . even for those of us who do not have spices still on our shelves for the 1990s. Second, they are ubiquitous and widely-sold; everybody has them, and everybody eats them, from the very healthy to the young and old, and all people in between. Third, the Salmonella bacteria, which is far and away the most prevalent contaminant of spices, is a hearty bug capable of surviving for long periods in a dry environment (e.g. a container of spices). As the Journal article notes, in a 1993 spice outbreak in Germany, testing 8 months after the contaminated product was identified produced positive results for viable Salmonella bacteria.
And the threats from a public health and surveillance standpoint? Long shelf-life frustrates the efforts of investigating health authorities to detect outbreaks and stop them. Also, again, everybody eats these spices, which works to the detriment of public health in investigating spice outbreaks because investigators are not necessarily able to hone in on the suspect product as easily. Even though everybody buys them and uses them, people may use many different brands on their shelves and would not be able to retrospectively identify which particular brand they used days, weeks, or months ago. And finally, spices are often a post-cooking flavoring ingredient, and thus there is often no kill step.
So what are we to do?
Certainly, the solution does not lie in not using the product. Very few, even among those who truly know the scope of the problem, will stop using spices altogether. And nor does the solution lie in preventing US food companies from using imported spices. These solutions are both totally unrealistic, forcing the bottom line conclusion that the food companies themselves must act as a buffer against the purchase, manufacture, and distribution of contaminated spices.
With respect to spices, the buck stops with the industry. It is time for the process of irradiation to gain a stronger foothold in the United States with respect to all products, and most definitely with respect to those food products that carry the greatest risk.
But irradiation is not the only answer. The Journal article describes others as well:
A number of methods exist to reduce or eliminate pathogens from spices (e.g., the use ethylene oxide, heat treatment, or irradiation [UV, infrared, or gamma]). Ethylene oxide is highly diffusive; is simple to use; does not significantly alter either the aromatic or flavor components of spices (unlike heat treatment, which can destroy the aromatic and flavor components of spices as well as their color (12)); and is effective in destroying microorganisms (18). However, the effect of ethylene oxide on spores is not as great as it is for vegetative cells (12). The FDA has established a maximum tolerance of 50 ppm for residues of ethylene oxide in ground spices (2). On the other hand, at least one study has suggested that irradiation represents the most effective and safe method of treatment of spices, and it is a process that yields no toxic by-products (17). For the microbial disinfection of spices, the FDA has established that, when irradiation is used, the maximum dose should not exceed 30 kilogray (3 Mrad) (3).
And yet another solution is good old fashioned hard work by food companies. Do your job better by instituting and following rigorous standards in the import, production, distribution, and sale of your products. This involves knowing your suppliers, and their track-record with respect to food safety; don’t simply look at cost as the sole conclusive factor in deciding who to buy spice products from. Also, take all necessary precautions to avoid contaminating your production environment. This was certainly a factor in the Union International outbreak, and possibly one in the Daniele salami outbreak linked to black and red pepper. And finally, as is the case in any outbreak of foodborne illness, act quickly and proactively in informing the public and investigating health authorities about the probability and scope of a contamination problem with your products. Media exposure, and the resulting business loss, that occurs in the wake of outbreaks and recalls is only worse when more people get sick; and hiding the ball is certainly a good way to make more people sick.