Donald Schaffner is a distinguished professor and an extension specialist in food science at Rutgers University. His expertise is in quantitative microbial risk assessment and predictive food microbiology; in other words, he uses math and statistics to help people understand and help manage food safety risks. In his 24 years at Rutgers, Schaffner has educated thousands of food industry professionals through short courses and workshops in the U.S. and more than a dozen countries around the world.
He examines the recent findings of several studies that show the extent to which imported spices are contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.
Q: Why is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concerned about spices?
A: In a recently published study of more than 20,000 food shipments, the U.S. FDA found that nearly 7 percent of spice lots were contaminated with Salmonella, twice the average of all other imported foods. Some 15 percent of coriander and 12 percent of oregano and basil shipments were contaminated, with high contamination levels also found in sesame seeds, curry powder and cumin. Four percent of black pepper shipments were contaminated.
Q: I like to eat spicy foods, do I need to be worried?
A: I also like to eat spicy foods, and I have not changed my eating habits in response to the findings of this study. When I shop for spices I look for name brands and companies that I can trust. If you are concerned about the safety of the spices you purchase, contact the vendor and ask them what they do to insure their spices are safe.
Q: What can I do to reduce my risk of food poisoning from spices? Are there spices I should avoid?
A: Remember when it comes to killing dangerous bacteria, cooking is your friend. Even if you add contaminated spices to a food during the cooking process, proper cooking of those foods to 160°F should kill most harmful bacteria. Promptly refrigerating leftovers and reheating thoroughly will help you manage risk from small levels of spore-forming bacteria that survive the cooking process.
Q: What should I do if I experience salmonella or other food poisoning?
A: The Centers for Disease Control advises that you should see your doctor or healthcare provider if you have diarrhea along with a high fever (temperature over 101.5°F, measured orally) or blood in the stools. Other danger signs include prolonged vomiting that prevents you from keeping liquids down, signs of dehydration or if you have had diarrhea for more than three days.
Q: Are there any other resources I can find on this subject? How can I find out what country my spices come from?
A: The best source of information on food recalls is the FDA website. Country of origin labeling is only required for certain foods, including most meats, fish and shellfish, fruits and vegetables, some nuts and ginseng. Country of origin labeling is not currently required for spices, so your best bet is to contact the company on the label.
Q: Is there a place where I can find a list of the suspect spices?
A: As noted above, the recently published scientific study contains the full details and certainly avoid any specific foods subject to recall as listed on the FDA website.