Salmonella is one of the most common causes of food-borne illness, and affects over one million Americans annually. More than 23,000 are hospitalized and 450 die. Death results if an infection spreads from the intestines to vital organs by way of the bloodstream.
Symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps that begin 12 to 36 hours after infection and can last 3-5 days.
A wide variety of foods can be tainted with salmonella, such as cantaloupe, tuna, papayas, and alfalfa sprouts. But one food item most people rarely suspect to be contaminated with salmonella is spices, where salmonella can survive indefinitely.
According to Gardiner Harris with the New York Times, the FDA will soon release a comprehensive analysis that identifies imported spices as a potent source of salmonella poisoning.
Contamination was found in coriander, oregano, basil, sesame seeds, curry powder and cumin. Four percent of black pepper shipments were contaminated.
Mexico had the highest share of contaminated spices, and India’s exports were the second-most contaminated.
However, of particular concern is India because India ships nearly four times the amount of spices to the United States than Mexico does. Nearly one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India.
Up until 1987, pepper farmers in India dried the seeds on bamboo mats or dirt floors where dirt, dung and salmonella were part of the harvest, until finally in the the late eighties, the FDA blocked India’s shipments of black pepper. The ban was lifted after the Indian government began a testing program.
The USDA claims the United States is one of the world’s largest spice importers, bringing in 326 metric tons in 2012 valued at $1.1 billion. “Of those imports, which account for more than 80 percent of the total United States spice supply, 19 percent were from India and 5 percent from Mexico.”
The findings of the three-year FDA study have been published in the journal Food Microbiology.
According to FDA tests, contaminated spices have many more salmonella types than is found on meat. And illnesses caused by spices are nearly impossible to trace since people rarely think to mention adding pepper to a salad.
Moreover, as few as 10 cells can cause serious illness, yet the FDA visually inspects less than 1 percent of all imported foods and performs lab tests on a tiny fraction.
How to Reduce Salmonella Risk
Harris notes bacteria do not survive high temperatures, so contaminated spices present fewer problems when added during cooking, as is typical in the cuisine of India and most other Asian countries.