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Organic Tarragon Spice Recalled for Salmonella Adulteration

10/24/2017

Health authorities in numerous states have informed the retail food distribution industry of the mandatory recall of organic tarragon spice distributed by Spicely Organics located in Fremont, CA. The product was distributed in 21 states although no cases of salmonellosis have been diagnosed. The recall was initiated following detection during routine sampling.

Spices are frequently implicated in outbreaks of food-borne infection. Due to the fact that they are minor ingredients frequently not declared on labels, identifying a pathogen associated with a specific spice included in a recipe is extremely difficult. This is evidenced by the 2011 outbreak of E. coli O104: H4 in North Germany, responsible for 4,300 diagnosed cases with 852 reports of severe hemolytic uremia syndrome. Ninety percent of the cases were adults with 50 fatalities. It took many weeks and a number of false trails to actually determine the specific vehicle of infection. Eventually the vehicle of infection for E. coli O104: H4 was identified as contaminated fenugreek spice imported from Egypt in 2009. At the outset of the investigation cucumbers were implicated but with additional patient surveys on foods consumed, sprouts appeared to be the vehicle of infection although these ingredients were shown to be free of contamination.  Further studies showed that fenugreek was in fact the culprit. Apart from the costs associated with treatment and loss of life and earnings, there was considerable disruption of the food distribution chain and loss of traffic in restaurants in North Germany due to fear of infection apparently associated with salads but without knowing the specific cause.

Spices are mostly imported from developing countries where cultivation, drying and processing lack appropriate HACCP and Good Manufacturing Practices. Although sampling to determine the presence of a pathogen is an established procedure, it is evident that sampling errors will occur allowing potentially adulterated material to contaminate fairly large quantities of food. This is especially the case with salads and other uncooked foods that deprive consumers of  protection from a heat process.

Irradiation of spices using either electron beam pasteurization or cobalt60 irradiation effectively destroys bacterial pathogens. Despite FDA approval for the process, there is little acceptance of irradiation based on the misinformed perception of the benefits of this application of radiation technology.

 

In the case of the contaminated organic tarragon, the product was certified as USDA Organic and therefore would not have been eligible for irradiation.

 

Lessons from this case include:

  • Organic status offers no assurance of food safety.
  • A little bit of spice can go a long way in contaminating a large quantity of food.
  • Demonstrating that a spice is a vehicle of infection is extremely difficult using retrospective menu-recall.
  • Traceback beyond a supplier or distributor is virtually impossible especially with imported spices.
     

(SMS 1,701-17 October 24th 2017)