Spicing up your spices with rodent hairs and Salmonella

Maybe it was TOO spicy for this guy. (AP/PETA)

Just when you thought our food supply was safe again.

In the wake of the government shutdown that suspended many of the essential protective services of the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (we wrote about this a few weeks back), an  FDA report – released, appropriately, on Mischief Night – finds that the spices we season our foods with can be tainted with pathogens and filth.

A spicy meal, anyone?

Spices like black pepper, paprika, turmeric, oregano, and onion powder are almost ubiquitous in our foodstuffs, giving flavor to what we eat, even for the awful chefs among us.

Among the report’s findings: during three years of testing, 6.6% of imported spices (most spices consumed in the U.S. are imports) were contaminated with Salmonella – more than twice the rate of all other FDA-regulated foods – and 12% of imported spices contained filth. According to the report, “the most common types of filth adulterants were insect fragments, whole/equivalent insects, and animal hair,” and noted that “the presence of rodent hair (without a root) in spices is generally indicative of contamination by rodent feces.”

Hungry yet?

The report, evocatively titled “Draft Risk Profile: Pathogens and Filth in Spices,” calls attention to 14 significant outbreaks around the world between 1973 and 2010 that could be traced back to tainted spices, resulting in nearly 2,000 illnesses, 128 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths. Only 3 of the 14 known outbreaks were in the United States.

So why is the FDA dedicating precious resources to studying a problem that over the past 40 years has had seemingly little public health impact here? Well, besides the gross factor, the agency is concerned that, given the quantities of Salmonella turned up by tests of imported spices, the public may in fact be at risk. Furthermore, people may be underreporting spice-related Salmonella illnesses.  So many spices are in so many foods that identifying them as the source of an outbreak could be difficult; victims may not remember or even know the spices that they consumed 12 to 72 hours before getting sick.

To help reduce the risks of contamination and illness, FDA recommendations include increased and improved surveillance, working with international regulatory partners, and the improvement of storage practices by spice producers and distributors.

In the meantime, bon appetit!

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