Spices have been around for thousands of years and today spices receive increased media attention several times in any given year. As with any media focus some of the “news” regarding spices are “feel good” slanted and some aim for showing the “darker side”. The more buzz (especially negative or sensational) they can generate the better for that particular news outlet. It’s all about ratings.

On the positive news side you’ve probably heard that spices not only season our food but they may also provide numerous additional health benefits. Some are reported to lower inflammation while others are believed to help combat cancer. We don’t really go anywhere near promoting or focusing on the medical benefits of spices as that is not what attracts us to spices (and we’re not doctors) – we like the amazing flavor they add to our meals.

More recently you many have read or heard where the FDA reported that 6.6% of all imported spices tested between 2007-2009 were contaminated with salmonella. This is certainly a scary headline and we received a handful of calls and emails about this so I felt that we needed to address this very important subject.

FDA Systems

The FDA has numerous programs and regulatory standards in place to prevent contaminated spices from reaching consumers and the agency (to their credit) is always looking to further strengthen overall food safety (including spices, dried herbs and dried chiles) by improving their inspection protocols of manufacturing facilities by implementing some of the newest options outlined in their most recent risk profiles.

Testing done by the FDA has found that contaminated spices tend to have more Salmonella types than is typically found on contaminated meats or vegetables. Unfortunately less than 1% of all imported foods are visually inspected by the FDA and actual lab testing is done on an even smaller sampling size. Imported foods (including spices) are rejected if they show any signs of Salmonella contamination.

Salmonella and Spices

It is very difficult to pin the original source of any Salmonella food borne outbreak back to spices due to the relatively long shelf life of spices and seasonings, and the fact that Salmonella has been known to survive indefinitely on dried spices. FDA officials now have access to sophisticated DNA sequencing of Salmonella types that allows them to pinpoint specific spices as a cause of a repeated outbreak. One of the more publicized instances involving black and red pepper occurred in 2010 where more than 250 people in 44 states became ill. We were not affected by this outbreak.

According to this recent FDA report, the small number of reported outbreaks is probably a combination of several factors. The leading factor is the stringent controls, which includes an HAACP (HACCP is the acronym for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point that is the internationally recognized and recommended approach to ensure food safety) program, put into place by spice and food manufacturing cpmpnies. These rigorous controls include pathogen reduction treatments.
The second leading factor is that the general consumer tends to eat smaller amounts of spices with meals which would lower the likelihood of illness from contaminated spices when compared to contaminated foods that are eaten in larger amounts (i.e. a recent cucumber outbreak that sickened 84 people in 18 states).

Of course it’s also reasonable to expect that outbreaks caused by contaminated spices are under reported due to spices being minor ingredients in multi-ingredient meals.

The FDA’s report identifies the presence of pathogens, such as Salmonella, and filth in spices as a systemic challenge. They identified potential failures in the farm-to-table food-safety system leading to the possible consumption of contaminated spices to stem from inconsistent or negligent application of recommended preventive controls. This study covered the years 1973 to 2010 and identified 14 spice and or seasoning related outbreaks which resulted in a little under 2,000 reported human illnesses and 128 hospitalizations worldwide. That’s an average of 54 cases per year.

71% (ten of fourteen) of the identified spice-associated outbreaks worldwide during this 1973-2010 time period and 87% of the documented human illnesses in these outbreaks were attributed to consumption of contaminated spices were caused by various types of Salmonella (there are more than 4,400 serotypes of known Salmonella).

According to another published report by UCLA it is calculated that in the United States there are an estimated 1 million incident cases of human salmonella that occur each year (total salmonella cases not those directly tied specifically to spices or even food) and reports of those caused by spices is approximately 54 per year. While cases of food borne illnesses related to spices are small critical strict protocols must be followed by suppliers and manufactures to reduce the potential risk (as even one cases is too many).

Spices Inc Quality Controls

As you may be aware Penny and I spent the first part of our working careers in the restaurant business and so food safety and proper handling techniques have practically been a part of our business DNA since day 1. When we started Spices Inc. we may have known very little about the spice business but we’ve made it our mission to know everything there is to know about spices and how to they are handled from the time of harvest to them arriving at our facility to shipping them out to our customers. Some of these spices and seasonings of course also make their way into our home so we want to be sure that they are completely safe for our customers and our own family.

We have been very diligent in choosing which suppliers to work with. We currently use a small group of suppliers for all of our spices, herbs, chiles and salts. We’ve found over the years that not all suppliers are created equal – the suppliers we choose to work with must have the best quality spices and these spices must meet stringent testing requirements! Choosing a supplier based on the lowest possible price inevitably means suppliers may be more likely take shortcuts (i.e. not offering documenedt testing protocols) – we don’t work with those companies. Our current suppliers must have strict certified testing procedures and reporting documentation in place to ensure that the spices, herbs and chiles we receive are safe.

The spices, herbs and chiles that come into our building have also been subjected to effective pathogen reduction treatment (irradiation, steam or ETO) and they’re also then tested for salmonella and E. coli (the two most common causes of pathogen related outbreaks). These spices are also tested for mold and yeast and the results must be very low (typically < 10). If they do not test to our stringent levels then they are not brought into our stock. Period.

We also keep a lower amount of spices on hand and we receive shipments practically every day from at least one of our suppliers. We currently average 20 turns a year on our spices which means that on average once an individual spice is received into our facility it is turned over and shipped out in less than 3 weeks. In addition to grinding spices in smaller batches frequently for optimum flavor we hand blend our seasonings in small batches so that they don’t sit in our facility for long (these are also turned within 3 weeks on average).

Our facility is regularly inspected by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

We take our responsibility in providing proper food safety very seriously and as a family run business adhere to Warren Buffet’s philosophy that “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”