Could your spice rack be making you sick?

Amanda O'Brien
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Telegram columnist Amanda Burton has been named one of two winners of the Rotary Club of St. John's Northwest's Aidan Maloney Emerging Professionals Award. — Telegram file photo

Variety is said to be the spice of life. That being said, you may want to look a little further into the variety your spice cupboard contains, according to an analysis from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are set to release a detailed report illustrating everyday spices found in many  Western world kitchens, as an unexpected but significant source of salmonella.

The study, which included more than 20,000 food shipments, found that overall seven per cent of spices were contaminated with salmonella. That’s twice the average of all other imported foods, and more than what is typically found on more publically known regulars for salmonella contamination: meats and poultry. Fifteen per cent of coriander, 12 per cent of oregano and basil were contaminated, as well as varying levels of contamination found in sesame seeds, curry powder, cumin and even black pepper shipments.

Until this report, I had no idea that spices could be a potential source of bacteria contamination and foodborne illness. I’m confident that many of you reading are also in that boat.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says spices have generally been regarded as low risk. However, the incidence of foodborne illness and food recalls associated with spices have increased significantly in recent years. They also note that spices are natural products and, without any antimicrobial treatment such as irridation or pasteurization, can harbour large numbers of bacteria, like salmonella and E. coli.

Salmonellosis is the second most frequently reported food-related illness in Canada. The bacteria is commonly found in the intestines of animals and birds, and can be transmitted to people when they consume foods infected with animal feces.

Often, contaminated foods are of animal origin, like beef, poultry, milk or eggs. People who eat food contaminated by this bacteria can experience diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps and fever. A CBC report from 2009 notes that every year, 6,000 to 12,000 cases of salmonella illness are reported, and the actual number of cases is likely much higher.

Mild cases often go unreported, or are often thought to be a case of the stomach flu.

Illness by these bacteria is hard to trace. In addition, how many of us would think black pepper may have been the culprit for an illness? We're more likely to quickly jump to the pink chicken or undercooked egg as the reason for salmonella poisoning.

The FDA report also noted that Mexico and India had the highest percentage of contaminated spices. About 14 per cent of the samples from Mexico contained salmonella, and nine per cent from India.

India is the largest importer of spices to the US, but in Canada, we receive the majority of our imported spices from the U.S. India and Mexico are however within the top 10 imports of special products to our country.

In 2007, Canada imported almost 30 tonnes, or $89 million worth of spices. According to Agriculture Canada, from 2001 to 2011, imports of seasoning and dressing products increased 39.1 per cent from a value of $348 million to $484 million.

While we do import spices, however, Canada produces more of our own spices. Spice production is centred primarily in Saskatchewan, with the two major crops being caraway and coriander.

So, how can we consume spices without the fear of getting sick? Consuming spices originating in Canada would be one way to be more cautious about your spice intake. The other way to combat spice contamination would be to add spices during the cooking process, versus at the table. Most bacteria, such as salmonella, do not survive high temperatures, thus cooking at higher temperatures can reduce the risk.

Heat your food to a safe minimum internal temperature. For recommended cooking temperatures, check out this handy chart


Amanda Burton is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the website:

Organizations: FDA, United States Food and Drug Administration, Canadian Food Inspection Agency CBC U.S. India

Geographic location: Canada, Mexico, India US Saskatchewan

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