SPICES grown in India’s mountain foothills, the Western Ghats, have fuelled wars, fortunes and even the discovery of continents, and for thousands of years farmers harvested them in the same traditional ways. Until now.
Science has revealed what ancient kings and sultans never knew: instead of improving health, spices sometimes make people very sick. So Indian government officials are now quietly pushing some far-reaching changes in the way farmers pick, dry and thresh their rich bounty.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 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 per cent of spice lots were contaminated with salmonella, twice the average of all other imported foods. Some 15 per cent of coriander and 12 per cent of oregano and basil shipments were contaminated, with high contamination levels also found in sesame seeds, curry powder and cumin. Four per cent of black pepper shipments were contaminated.
Each year, 1.2 million people in the US become sick from salmonella, one of the most common causes of food-borne illness. More than 23,000 are hospitalised and 450 die. Symptoms include diarrhoea, fever and abdominal cramps that begin 12 to 36 hours after infection and can last three to five days.
Death can result when infection spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream and affects vital organs. Infants and older people are most at risk.
Mexico and India had the highest share of contaminated spices. About 14 per cent 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 per cent, but India ships nearly four times the amount of spices to the US that Mexico does, so its contamination problems are particularly worrying. Nearly one-quarter of the spices, oils and food colourings used in the US comes from India.
The findings, the result of a three-year study that FDA 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”.
“Salmonella is a widespread problem with respect to imported spices,” said Michael Taylor, deputy FDA commissioner for food. “We have decided that spices are one of the significant issues we need to be addressing right now.”
Westerners are particularly vulnerable to contaminated spices because pepper and other spices are often added at the table, so bacterial hitchhikers are consumed live and unharmed.
Bacteria do not survive high temperatures, so contaminated spices present fewer problems when added during cooking, as is typical in the cuisine of India and most other Asian countries.
“The world wants safe spices, and we are committed to making that happen,” said Dr A Jayathilak, chairman of the Spices Board of India, a government agency that regulates and promotes spices.
Illnesses caused by spices are hard to trace. When asked what might have made them sick, people rarely think to mention adding pepper to a salad. Spices sit on kitchen shelves for long periods, so linking illnesses that can occur years apart is often impossible.
But sophisticated DNA sequencing of salmonella types is finally allowing food officials to pinpoint spices as a cause of repeated outbreaks, including one in 2010 involving black and red pepper that sickened more than 250 people in 44 states. After a 2009 outbreak linked to white pepper, an inspection found that salmonella had colonised much of the Union City, California, spice processing facility at the heart of the outbreak.
On a tour through a tropical landscape teeming with pepper and cardamom farms, rubber plantations, tea estates and wild elephants, Indian spice officials showed some voluntary changes they are pushing.
The first stop was Noble Joseph’s ten-acre pepper farm, about a four-hour drive from the south-western port city of Kochi, in the state of Kerala, up several thousand feet of twisting mountain roads.
Joseph’s hilly farm is dominated by slim silver oaks and erythrina trees planted every eight feet; each tree is encircled by four or five pepper vines.
Not so long ago, pepper farmers almost universally dried the seeds on bamboo mats or dirt floors and then gathered them for manual threshing. Dirt, dung and salmonella were simply part of the harvest, so much so that in 1987, the FDA blocked shipments of black pepper from India. The ban was lifted two years later, after the Indian government began a testing programme.
Now, the Josephs boil their harvest in water to clean the kernels, speed dry them and to encourage a uniform colour. They are then placed on tarpaulins spread over a concrete slab with nets above to catch bird droppings. Ovens would be even more sanitary, but ovens and electricity are expensive “and sunlight is free,” Joseph said.
But salmonella can survive indefinitely on dried spices, and killing the bacterium on the craggy surface of dried peppercorns without ruining their taste is especially challenging.
At a spice farm in the village of Chemmanar, Bipin Sebastian is in the midst of a four-year transition to organic farming in the hope of earning a premium price for his pepper, cloves, cardamom, turmeric and coffee. Sebastian says he has used government subsidies to buy tarpaulins, netting and a machine thresher.
“We used to put our pepper directly on the ground,” Sebastian said. “Now, we put down tarps and netting over it to protect it from the birds. And I’ve been getting a higher price. It’s been great.”