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F.D.A. Finds 12% of U.S. Spice Imports Contaminated
Graham Crouch for The New York Times
Published: October 30, 2013
NEW DELHI — About 12 percent of spices brought to the United States are contaminated with insect parts, whole insects, rodent hairs and other things, according to an analysis of spice imports by federal food authorities.
The finding released on Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration is part of a comprehensive look at the safety of spice imports that has been years in the making. The federal authorities also found that nearly 7 percent of spice imports examined by federal inspectors were contaminated with salmonella, a toxic bacteria that can cause severe illness in humans.
The shares of imported spices contaminated with insect parts and salmonella were twice those found in other types of imported food, federal food officials said.
The agency’s findings “are a wake-up call” to spice producers, said Jane M. Van Doren, a food and spice official at the F.D.A. “It means: ‘Hey, you haven’t solved the problems.’ ”
The agency called spice contamination “a systemic challenge” and said most of the insects found in spices were the kinds that thrive in warehouses and other storage facilities, suggesting that the industry’s problems result not from poor harvesting practices but poor storage and processing.
John Hallagan, a spokesman for the American Spice Trade Association, said Wednesday that he had not seen the report, so he could not comment on it. But spice manufacturers have argued in the past that food manufacturers often treat imported spices before marketing them, so F.D.A. findings of contamination levels in its import screening program do not mean that spices sold to consumers are dangerous.
F.D.A. inspectors have found that some spices that claim to have been treated are contaminated nonetheless. And the high levels of filth from insects and rodents is a problem that is not easily resolved because, unlike with salmonella contamination, simply cooking or heating the spices will not rid the products of the problem. Insects can also be a source of salmonella contamination.
What share of the nearly 1.2 million annual salmonella illnesses in the United States result from contaminated spices is unclear, officials said. Fewer than 2,000 people had their illnesses definitively tied to contaminated spices from 1973 to 2010, and most people eat spices in small quantities. But people often fail to remember eating spices when asked what foods might have sickened them, so problems related to spices could be seriously underreported, officials said.
Recent legislation in the United States grants the F.D.A. the power to refuse entry of foods that the agency even suspects might be contaminated — strong leverage to demand changes in harvesting, handling and manufacturing practices in foreign countries.
Spice imports from Mexico and India have been found to have the highest rate of contamination. Nearly one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India, according to the F.D.A.
The F.D.A. commissioner, Margaret A. Hamburg, had intended to visit India this fall and meet with spice industry officials to discuss the agency’s concerns about spice safety, but the government shutdown delayed her plans, she said. Indian spice officials are offering incentives to get farmers to change some traditional harvest and handling practices that could lead to contamination.
Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the F.D.A., said that the spice industry needs to clean up poor storage practices, a difficult effort.
“There is no magic wand for any of the problem we’re addressing,” Mr. Taylor said