Salmonella in spices prompts changes in farming, drying
Science has revealed what ancient kings and sultans never knew: Instead of improving health, spices sometimes make people very sick, so officials in India are quietly pushing some of the most far-reaching changes ever in the way farmers here pick, dry and thresh their rich bounty.
The New York Times
IDUKKI, India — Spices grown in the mist-shrouded Western Ghats mountain range here have fueled wars, fortunes and even the discovery of continents, and for thousands of years farmers harvested them in the same traditional ways. Until now.
Science has revealed what ancient kings and sultans never knew: Instead of improving health, spices sometimes make people very sick, so Indian government officials are quietly pushing some of the most far-reaching changes ever in the way farmers here pick, dry and thresh their rich bounty.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will soon release a comprehensive analysis that pinpoints imported spices, found in just about every kitchen in the Western world, as a surprisingly potent source of salmonella poisoning.
In a study of more than 20,000 food shipments, the food agency found that nearly 7 percent of spice lots were contaminated with salmonella, twice the average of all other imported foods. Some 15 percent of coriander and 12 percent of oregano and basil shipments were contaminated, with high contamination levels also found in sesame seeds, curry powder and cumin. Four percent of black-pepper shipments were contaminated.
Each year, 1.2 million people in the United States become sick from salmonella, one of the most common sources of food-borne illness. More than 23,000 are hospitalized and 450 die. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps that begin 12 to 36 hours after infection and can last three to five days. Death can result when infection affects vital organs. Infants and older people are most at risk.
Mexico and India had the highest share of contaminated spices. About 14 percent of the samples from Mexico contained salmonella, the study found, a result Mexican officials disputed.
India’s exports were the second-most contaminated, at approximately 9 percent, but India ships nearly four times the amount of spices to the U.S. that Mexico does. Nearly one-quarter of Americans’ spices, oils and food colorings comes from India.
The findings, the result of a three-year study that FDA officials have on occasion discussed publicly and recently published in the journal Food Microbiology, form an important part of the spice analysis that will be made public “soon,” officials said.
Westerners are particularly vulnerable to contaminated spices because pepper and other spices are added at the table, so bacterial hitchhikers are consumed live and unharmed. Bacteria do not survive high temperatures, so spices present fewer problems when added during cooking, as is typical in the cuisine of India and most other Asian countries.
In India, the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of spices, government officials are taking U.S. concerns seriously.
“The world wants safe spices, and we are committed to making that happen,” said Dr. A. Jayathilak, chairman of the Spices Board of India, a government agency that regulates and promotes spices.
On a tour through a tropical landscape teeming with pepper and cardamom farms, rubber plantations, tea estates and wild elephants, Indian spice officials showed some voluntary changes they are pushing.
The first stop was Noble Joseph’s 10-acre pepper farm. Not so long ago, pepper farmers almost universally dried the seeds on bamboo mats or dirt floors and then gathered them for manual threshing. Dirt, dung and salmonella were simply part of the harvest.
Now, the Josephs boil their harvest in water to clean the kernels. They are then placed on tarps spread over a concrete slab with nets above to catch bird droppings.
Ovens would be even more sanitary, but ovens and electricity are expensive “and sunlight is free,” Joseph said.
Salmonella can survive indefinitely on dried spices.
Indian officials emphasized that spices slated for export are often treated to kill any bacteria. Such treatments include steam-heating, irradiation or ethylene oxide gas.
But FDA inspectors have found high levels of salmonella in shipments said to have received such treatments, documents show.