Not to be confused with the Spice Girls.

New York Times writer Gardiner Harris wrote last week about the risks of Salmonella in imported spices.  According to Gardiner:

The United States Food and Drug Administration will soon release a comprehensive analysis that pinpoints imported spices, found in just about every kitchen in the Western world, as a surprisingly potent source of Salmonella poisoning.

In a study of more than 20,000 food shipments, the food agency 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.

Mexico and India had the highest share of contaminated spices. About 14 percent of the samples from Mexico contained salmonella, the study found, a result Mexican officials disputed.

India’s exports were the second-most contaminated, at approximately 9 percent, 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.

The findings, the result of a three-year study that F.D.A. officials have on occasion discussed publicly and recently published in the journal Food Microbiology, form an important part of the spice analysis that will be made public “soon,” agency officials said.

“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.”

It should have happened earlier.

In early 2009, health departments in several states documents PFGE-matched cases of the rare strain of Salmonella Rissen. As investigations into the apparent outbreak got fully underway, Salmonella Rissen matching the outbreak-strain—that is, the strain isolated from the individuals infected—was isolated from ground white pepper found in three different restaurants in three of the affected states. In each instance, the ground white pepper bore a U.F. Union brand name. This discovery prompted an inspection of the U.F. Union facility in Union City, California. The inspection occurred on March 27, 2009, in accordance with the Domestic Food Safety Inspection Program. At that point, there were 42 confirmed Salmonella infections that had been linked to consumption of U.F. Union’s contaminated white pepper.

My client, Donna Pierce, was born on April 16, 1939 in Antigo, Wisconsin. She died April 9, 2009 of a Salmonella Rissen infection after spending the last month of her life hospitalized. As a family member said:

Shortly after I left the hospital to get something to eat, Donna died. My heart was broken. I could not believe that she was finally gone. She and I were lifelong friends. Especially these past couple of years, we spent all of our time together. We would play board games, talk, eat, shop, and visit family. Not a day goes by that I do not miss her company.

I will always remember Donna for her great sense of humor. She loved to laugh. She believed that laughter would add years to her life. I guess it did not turn out that way for Donna.

I guess not.  Read a bit about the inspection report:

The inspection conducted at U.F. Union included an examination of the facility’s pepper-handling procedures and good manufacturing practices. The inspection turned up a litany of disturbing findings. For example, according to the final FDA 483 report, the owner was cited for six inspection observations:

1. Failure to manufacture, package, and store foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential growth of microorganisms and contamination.

a. Private laboratory analysis results provided by the hired consultant revealed environmental samples collected from inside the facility were found positive for Salmonella.

b. Ground white pepper was stored in open barrels beneath an unscreened roof vent.

2. Failure to maintain white pepper grinding equipment in an acceptable condition through appropriate cleaning and sanitizing (an accumulation of dust was observed on multiple food contact surfaces).

3. The funnels and unlined barrels were not made of materials that allowed for proper cleaning and maintenance.

4. Failure to clean and sanitize scoops used for repackaging spices in a manner that protected against contamination of food (food residues and a thin film of dust were observed on the scoops).

5. Failure to clean non-food contact surfaces in the white pepper grinding room and the adjacent hallway as frequently as necessary to protect against contamination (accumulations of white pepper dust and brown stains were observed on multiple surfaces in the immediate vicinity of food contact surfaces).

6. Failure to maintain pipes used to convey oil (food product) in a manner that protected against contamination (oil was observed collected in pans below pipes and in a plastic bag tied around a pipe in the sauce and oil bottling room).

Additionally, of 116 environmental-swab samples collected, 46 tested positive for Salmonella (40%), while 14 of 18 in-process white pepper samples (78%), and 2 finished-product composite samples (100%) tested positive. By June 4, 2009, the U.F. Union Salmonella outbreak encompassed a total of 87 PFGE-matched cases of Salmonella Rissen in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Also as part of the outbreak investigation, samples of whole white pepper were collected at U.F. Union’s facility from sealed, intact bags purchased from Harris Freeman. A sample collected from one of the Harris Freeman bags, on April 7, 2009, was positive for Salmonella Rissen, and was a genetic match to the unique outbreak strain.

FDA, better late than never.