A 1997 outbreak of cyclospora in fresh basil prepared at a Washington, D.C. restaurant sickened hundreds. Additional outbreaks have been associated with parsley, cilantro and pepper, among others.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that in the middle of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella illness linked to black and red pepper — and after 16 separate U.S. recalls since 2001 of tainted spices ranging from basil to sage — federal regulators met last week with the spice industry to figure out ways to make the supply safer.
Jeff Farrar, the FDA’s associate commissioner for food safety, said the government wants the spice industry to do more to prevent contamination. That would include use of one of three methods to rid spices of bacteria: irradiation, steam heating or fumigation with ethylene oxide, a pesticide.
"The bottom line is, if there are readily available validated processes out there to reduce the risk of contamination, our expectation is that they will use them," Farrar said. But the FDA cannot currently require it.
Cheryl Deem, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association, said contamination of raw ingredients has long been a problem in the spice industry, adding,
"The vast majority of spices are cultivated outside of the U.S., where processing methods often result in contamination."
Linda Harris, a microbiologist at the University of California at Davis, said,
"In the last 15 years, food safety is just at an increasingly higher level of awareness. We’ve got increased testing, increased detection methods. I don’t think what we’re seeing is necessarily a true increase in prevalence. I think it’s an increase in our ability to detect."
Steve Markus, director of food safety and commercial products at Sterigenics Inc., the biggest food irradiation company in the country, said about half of the nation’s spices are irradiated, but that nearly all companies using irradiation sell to industrial customers. No retail spice company uses irradiation because federal law requires disclosure of irradiation on the label, and the industry thinks consumers will not buy those products.
I’d buy irradiated spices and so would others. No one has tried selling the stuff, so conjectures about consumer behavior based on surveys are meaningless. But, that’s the way many retailers are. Market food safety at retail.