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Ensuring the Safety of Common Spices

February 25, 2015


If you like to spice up your favorite recipes, you could be creating much dicier dishes than you think. Tests of several imported spices by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently exposed the darker side of seasonings. Pathogen contamination (6.9 percent of samples) and filth (12 percent of samples) are so extensive, the FDA says it may point to be a systemic problem throughout the entire spice supply chain (source: FDA Risk Profile: Pathogens and Filth in Spices).

What's Lurking In Your Spices?

What did the FDA find? In addition to ground up insects, rat hair, manure, and more than 80 different types of salmonella, everything from red brick powder, bark, and charcoal to unacceptably high levels of heavy metals, including cadmium, lead, and arsenic, appeared in spice samples from India, Mexico, Thailand, and Vietnam. Beyond the "yuck" factor of these findings, such adulterants can pose serious health problems. Adults exposed to excessive heavy metals can suffer from high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, and kidney and neurological disorders (source: FDA Risk Profile: Pathogens and Filth in Spices).

How Precision Analytical Instruments Help Reveal Adulterants

Fortunately, food safety regulators have a full array of precision analytical instruments available from global leaders such a PerkinElmer to determine the extent of adulterants in spices. Using PerkinElmer's atomic absorption (AA) spectrometers and inductively coupled mass spectrometers (ICP-MS), for example, scientists discovered high traces of heavy metals in Chinese spice mixes. Coupled with special adulterant screening software, PerkinElmer's near-infrared spectroscopy (FT-NIR) and direct sample analysis with time-of-flight spectrometers turned up a range of other adulterants in spices from talc powder, ground walnut shells, and sand, to wheat starch, saw dust, and cornstarch.

Spice adulteration will likely always exist due to unsanitary conditions and unscrupulous criminals intent on making more money through ingredient substitutions. But it is reassuring to know that companies like PerkinElmer are partnering with food safety professionals to make sure the next time you spice up those special dishes, it is with the genuine article.

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