Amid an unfolding nationwide outbreak of salmonella that has been linked to salami made with tainted black and red pepper, officials from the Food and Drug Administration met recently with spice industry representatives to figure out how to prevent future outbreaks.
People agree that spices need to be treated with either irradiation, steam heating or fumigation with ethylene oxide to rid them of bacteria. But the FDA cannot currently require such action.
Last year, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation that would require domestic spice producers to take these steps and spice importers to assure the safety of foreign supplies, but the bill is stalled in the Senate.
The outbreak of salmonella-tainted salami has been linked to 249 illnesses in 44 states. There have been no deaths.
Although salmonella is more commonly associated with poultry, meat and vegetables, the bacterium can survive in dried spices for years. And since spices have a long shelf-life, it becomes difficult for health officials to link diseases to particular spices.
With the exception of garlic, onions and red chili peppers, most spices consumed in the US are imported from countries like Brazil, China, Egypt, Grenada, India, Indonesia, Morocco, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Vietnam, developing nations where pollution and water problems create contamination hazards.
About half the nation’s spices are irradiated, but these end up being sold to industrial customers. Retail spice companies don’t irradiate spices because federal law requires that this be disclosed on the label. The industry believes consumers won’t buy such products.
“If the labeling issue would go away, there would be a high interest (in) irradiation,” said Steve Markus, director of food safety and commercial products at Sterigenics, the nation’s largest food irradiation company.