“Bug parts” in imported spices – should you be concerned?

Sorghum, with a hitchhiker
Sorghum, with a hitchhiker

Thursday, the United States FDA released “Draft Risk Profile: Pathogens and Filth in Spices,” (PDF link) which is making the rounds of the media with a sensationalist tone about bug parts and rat hair, and placing a lot of blame on small farmers overseas.  You can read the whole report yourself at the link above.  If 213 pages seems excessive right now, CNN had the most comprehensive and accurate media coverage I saw on this topic so far.

Let’s break this down into the issues:

  • Bad small farmers
  • Contamination
  • Ick factor
  • Importing our spices

First, the FDA report doesn’t blame small farmers.  Small farmers in tropical regions are responsible for a large portion of the international spice trade.  The problem with small farmers is not their size, but that it is much harder to train many small, scattered growers on food safety and hygiene that it is a few giant operations.

Next, contamination.  12% of spices are considered contaminated, but many of those bulk spices have yet to undergo cleaning treatments at the packaging companies.  These treatments including sifting and cleaning for physical adulterants (like hair) and also sometimes cooking or other treatments to reduce microbial contamination.  Salmonella is one of the common adulterants cited and while it can lead to serious illness, the small amount of spices a person eats shows in the correspondingly small food illness reports: only 14 outbreaks of food illness worldwide in 37 years, and only two deaths.  As food risk goes, this is fairly small.

Oh, but the ick factor.  The newspapers are publishing large headlines about bug parts, not salmonella, because bugs are icky.  Never mind that many cultures eat insects in one form or another, it’s not part of the American concept of food, despite recent research showing we should be ranching mealworms instead of beef.  I’m part of that culture: the only grasshoppers I am likely to eat soon have “Keebler” on the outside of the package.  But as a gardener, I am pretty realistic about the fact that if you eat food, you end up eating insects and insect parts.  Dried beans are particularly likely to contain insect eggs, but so does meat and the exteriors and nooks and crannies of vegetables and fruit.  If I don’t rush inside to wash a snap pea picked off the vine before I eat it, I am not going to freak out about microscopic parts of bugs in a dash of pepper.

But that brings us to the final concern: importing our spices.  Many of the spices and flavorings that we prize are grown in remote tropical areas.  This isn’t an American phenomenon, nor even a new one.  Some of the oldest trade routes in the world were developed around shipping spices.  If civilization crashed tomorrow, there would still be traders on rafts and boats and donkeys and camels trekking the world to sell spices.  (Whether you could afford them is another matter.)  I have advocated growing your own herbs whenever possible, because for the space and effort they take up, they are very cost effective.  Hot peppers and paprika, too, are in range for most of the US.  But I can’t grow peppercorns in Alabama.  Or vanilla, nutmeg, anise, cinnamon, or many others.  So we import because we must if we want to flavor our foods in familiar ways.

Perhaps most tellingly, the 12% contamination rate in spices is twice the rate of contamination of other imported foods.  That means the fully 6% of all our imported food is contaminated with these specific adulterants, and does not include various chemicals used in farming.  The issue before us is not why do we import spices, but why do we import so much food at all, given the high rate of contamination?  And why are the news reports all about this 12% that comprises much less than 1% of our diet, and not the 6% that comprises 10-15% of our diet (PDF link)?