It used to be that outbreaks of salmonella were thought to be limited to poultry. But in recent years the bacteria, which can cause serious illness and even death, has been found in spinach, lettuce, sesame seeds, and now, according to the New York Times, your spice rack. The news is courtesy of a 3-year study by the Food and Drug Administration that has recently been published in the journal Food Microbiology.
The report states that nearly 7 percent of imported spices were contaminated with salmonella, likely from being laid out in the sun to dry, where dirt and bird droppings are not always caught with preventive measures or cleaned off in the treating process. While government officials and spice farmers are working to make spices safer for consumption there are several means of treating spices, but they are not always effective in killing the bacteria here’s what you need to know to keep your family safe.
- The risk of salmonella poisoning is real: more than a million people are diagnosed with it each year in the US. It can lead to hospitalization about 2% of the time. About 450 people die each year from salmonella poisoning. Many cases are never traced back to the contaminated food. Additionally, many cases of what is most likely salmonella poisoning are never scientifically confirmed.
- According to the study, imported spices from Mexico and India were found to have the highest levels of contamination: 14 percent of Mexican spices and 9 percent of Indian spice samples were found to be contaminated.
- Spices are required to be processed either before they are imported or after they arrive in the US, but, again, the treatment is not always effective. And because there is no requirement that the spices be labeled as treated, consumers are likely unaware of the risks.
- The most commonly contaminated spices are coriander, oregano, basil, sesame seeds, curry powder, and black pepper. Ground spices are more likely to be contaminated than whole spices.
- Salmonella can live indefinitely on dry spices, but the danger of salmonella poisoning is higher in the summer when temperatures are warm and food is often left out in the sun where bacteria can multiply. You can reduce the risk of illness by keeping hot foods hot, cold foods cold, and not letting food sit out for more than 2 hours.
- It doesn’t take much spice to cause an illness: a little bit of pepper in salami was found to be at the root of a salmonella outbreak in 2009.
- Salmonella is killed with heat. Adding spices to foods while they are cooking will reduce the risk of salmonella poisoning. Grinding pepper over your food at the table is less safe than adding it to the sauce while it is cooking. If you do add spices to your food while it’s cooking or if you “pasteurize” your spices yourself by toasting them make sure you get them up to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
That last one is the toughest for me. My kids don’t like their food “spicy” so I often grind pepper over my own dish rather than adding it when I’m cooking. But now I know the danger and can take steps to avoid it.
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