A new Food and Drug Administration report (pdf) found that 12 percent of spices imported to the United States contain "filth," that includes human hair, rat feces, bird feathers, and insect casings. In addition, 7 percent of the spices were found to be contaminated with the illness-causing pathogen Salmonella. That's twice as much filth and salmonella as have been found in any other imported foods.
According to the American Spice Trade Association, most of the spices we use in the U.S. must be grown in tropical or subtropical conditions, which means they're coming from developing nations around the globe where sanitation and food-handling practices may be subpar.
"All agricultural products, including spices, are commonly exposed to dust, dirt, insects, and animal waste before they are harvested, and there are additional opportunities for contamination during processing, storage, and transportation," says ASTA Executive Director Cheryl Deem.
While the idea of eating bat guano and insect parts is revolting, experts insist that these fears are overblown. They say that these contaminants are sometimes found in raw materials, but they very rarely actually make it to your dinner table.
"For this study, the FDA tested spices at ports of entry into the U.S. when they were raw agricultural products – before manufacturers cleaned, processed, and treated the spices to eliminate pathogens and filth," says Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association. "To get a more accurate safety assessment, you would have to test the finished spices that consumers actually use, which have been processed and cleaned."
The truth is, very few Americans have actually gotten sick from contaminated spices. The FDA identified only three food-borne illness outbreaks caused by spices between 1973 to 2010. However, the FDA notes that people often don't consider spices when trying to figure out which food made them sick, and so spice-caused illnesses may be underreported.
Deem doesn't brush off the possibility that spices are making people sick, but she doesn't think this news should spark widespread panic. "FDA should make it clear whether a product is ready to eat and should be clean and pathogen free or is essentially a raw agricultural product that will undergo treatment for microbial contamination, extensive cleaning, and further processing before it reaches consumers," she says. "These are essential steps that U.S. companies take to ensure that the spices that end up on consumers' plates are clean and safe."