Spices like paprika, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper and chili are generally considered to be safe foods because their low moisture content doesn’t support the growth of food-borne bacterial pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter.
However, this assumption has been challenged in recent years by a number of food-borne illness outbreaks and food recalls linked to contaminated spices in several countries, including Canada and the United States.
A number of these products have also been recalled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) due to undeclared allergens.
In light of the above, it’s important that operators and food workers in every food industry in Canada are aware of the potential health risks associated with dried herbs and spices.
How do spices cause food-borne illness?
The CFIA’s microbiological monitoring program, which involves the random selection and testing of domestic and imported food products, has uncovered a wide variety of food pathogens — including Salmonella, E. coli, B. cereus and Cronobacter — in dried herbs and spices.
Spices can become contaminated during cultivation, harvesting or processing in their country of origin; they can also become contaminated during the course of operations in a commercial food business or community organization that serves food to the public, such as a hospital, aged care or childcare facility.
Many bacterial pathogens can survive for extended periods of time in low-moisture food products like dried herbs and spices. Salmonella, the principal bacterial pathogen associated with these food items, can survive in low-moisture foods for weeks, months or even years.
When added as seasonings to ready-to-eat foods, or added to foods that provide suitable conditions for growth, dried herbs and spices can cause food-borne illness.
To reduce the risk of food-borne illness, add spices to food before or during the cooking process. As a general rule, foods should be cooked to 74°C / 165°F to destroy harmful bacteria and other pathogens.
Spices and allergen risks
Like food-borne pathogens, allergens can easily find their way into spices, dried herbs and similar products. Unlike (most) food-borne pathogens, food allergens are not destroyed by high heat. Once they’re in there, they’re in there for good.
Even microscopic amounts of a food allergen could cause a life-threatening allergic reaction, which is why absolutely everyone who handles food for the public must be trained to prevent cross-contamination.
Online food safety training courses are a quick, easy way to ensure Food Handlers learn the skills required to handle food safely.
In recent months, a number of spices, dried herbs and loose leaf teas have been recalled by the CFIA due to undeclared allergens like mustard, milk, gluten, peanut and sulphites.
It’s important for food businesses and related organizations to stay on top of product recalls and pull any contaminated products from their inventory to ensure the safety of customers, clients or vulnerable people in their care.
Food recalls (Class 1, 2 and 3) are available on the CFIA website. CIFS Members can opt in to receive food recall alerts sent directly to their mobile phones, ensuring that contaminated food products are removed from inventory and not served to customers.
CIFS Membership is free for one year with enrolment in the CIFS Food Handler Certificate Course.