The FDA tested more than 20,000 shipments of spices over the course of three years, and found that nearly 7 percent of all imported spices were contaminated with salmonella. That's twice the average of contamination on 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," the Times noted.
The countries delivering the highest contamination rates were Mexico and India. "About 14 percent of the samples from Mexico contained salmonella, the study found, a result Mexican officials disputed." India's imports showed about a 9 percent contamination rate, "but India ships nearly four times the amount of spices to the United States that Mexico does, so its contamination problems are particularly worrisome, officials said. Nearly one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the United States comes from India."
“Salmonella is a widespread problem with respect to imported spices,” Michael Taylor, deputy F.D.A. commissioner for food, said in an interview. “We have decided that spices are one of the significant issues we need to be addressing right now.”
While cooking at high heat can destroy salmonella, one of the biggest concerns in tracing outbreaks is the fact that most people don't recall what spices they ate that could have made them sick. Something as simple as adding fresh pepper to a dish could cause illness.
The U.S. imports more than $1 billion worth of spices each year—about 80 percent of all spices sold in the country.
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