There’s a storm brewing. A sea change. An unprecedented overturning of the comfort of routine and points of balance. We are living in interesting times. From the proposed border wall to the U.S. quitting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), whatever your political leanings, it’s easy to agree that post-election America is a rapidly changing landscape. Both on a national and an individual level, change is inherently destabilizing and disquieting. It can put us in a tailspin, driving us to seek comfort in the familiar, the routine, the everyday. And for some of us, reassurance and continuity is to be found in the food on our plates, in the relaxing family meal at the end of a jarring day. It’s in the warmly comforting scents that fill our homes as wild aromatics waft from the stove. In times of stress, what is more comforting than a special meal, lovingly prepared, and perfectly spiced?
But what if that meal also harbors a little extra something? What if that dish you crafted – composed only of the finest organic and bio-dynamic ingredients – also gives you an unexpected addition?
A salmonella garnish, a helping of listeria, or a side of lead contamination? What if the smallest of ingredients were harboring a big problem?
According to an article in Food Safety News, an online portal for news in the food industry, Spices USA Inc. of Hialeah, FL, initiated an October 2016 recall of bagged turmeric, netting a total of 38,600lbs (approximately 17,508 kilos) of product that tested positive for lead contamination.(1) The powder originated in India but was distributed worldwide with wholesale orders to France, Columbia, Jamaica, Barbados, and the Dominican Republic. Created from the root or tuber Curcuma longa, turmeric is harvested, cleaned, dried and made into a pungent, bright yellow powder that characterizes Indian cuisine where it is used as a single spice or blended with coriander, cumin, ginger, mustard, and more to form curry powder. In addition to its culinary role, turmeric has also long been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medical traditions as a disinfectant, a treatment for laryngitis or bronchitis, to ease osteoarthritis, alleviate pain, and to promote remission for those with ulcerative colitis.(2) And due to its levels of curcumin, a naturally-occurring chemical compound, turmeric has recently made its way into the Western tradition of nutritional supplementation thanks to its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
So with that in mind, it’s easy to see why such a large recall of the powder has sent shockwaves through the spice manufacturing community. And it is not a solitary action. In August 2016, Miami’s Oriental Packaging Co. Inc. issued a recall of approximately 188.5 tons of curry seasoning due to lead contamination. Following routine testing by the New York State Health Department, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) launched a full investigation, recalling no fewer than fifteen products from five different brands, from mild curry powder to Jamaican jerk seasoning.(3) The common component? Lead-laced turmeric.
As we know, lead toxicity is not a trivial matter. Lead is an environmental contaminant that can be airborne, water-borne, or picked up from the soil. Unlike listeria or salmonella which are swift-acting, it’s a stealth contaminant taking years to accumulate in the body with symptoms becoming evident only when levels are dangerously high. Children are particularly at risk from lead poisoning and can experience developmental delays, abdominal pain, fatigue, seizures, hearing loss, and learning difficulties as a result of sustained exposure. Although less vulnerable, adults may exhibit symptoms such as high blood pressure, headaches, joint and muscle pain, reduced sperm count, or miscarriage/premature birth, especially if lead concentrations are high in their home or work environments.
But how can lead end up in a humble cooking spice?
In the case of the recalled turmeric powder, the contamination could have come from a variety of sources. Perhaps from the soil in which the root was grown, the water with which it was irrigated, or – as the FDA contends – it may have been the environmental conditions under which the spice was packed. If processed in a plant situated within an industrial area with poor inside air quality and bad ventilation, lead contamination could easily occur.(4) Since Spices USA neither handled nor modified the turmeric before shipping to buyers, the contamination must have been introduced before it reached the wholesalers stateside.
So given that American wholesalers do not control the manufacture of the product, what can they do? According to Jeffrey L. Kornacki, Ph.D. writing in Food Safety Magazine, it is up to the industry to take the initiative in ensuring their supply chain is nothing short of exemplary. The model, says Kornacki, ‘will include many things, such as but not limited to supplier controls, appropriate sanitization approaches—given that traditional wet-cleaning approaches have been shown to pose greater risk in dry food processing environments—preoperational swabbing programs for validation of the effectiveness of cleaning and sanitization, rigorous environmental sampling and corrective action programs, appropriate lot-based testing and segregation of processing lines, hygienic equipment design and repair practices, preventive maintenance programs and ongoing training.’(5) In short, what this analyst is calling for is an overhaul of the system that blends the best practices of food handling, infuses them with the sort of standard SOPs we’d expect of a cleanroom environment, and finally peppers them with Current Good Manufacturing Practices to ensure product safety and quality. From soup to nuts.
But a re-vamp of the supply-chain monitoring and verification on this scale is likely to be costly and does not take account of one thing. Border control.
Many of the raw materials used in spices and spice blends are, of necessity, grown outside of the U.S. and are imported from countries like India, Jamaica, and Mexico. And the recent calls by the Trump administration to levy higher tariffs on goods imported from our southern neighbor in order to offset the cost of the proposed wall between north and south could have a significant and detrimental impact on our own spice blenders here at home. Take, for instance, the case of McCormick…
The manufacturer of the iconic line of red-labeled, narrow-throated spice jars commonly found in grocery stores, McCormick began its journey into American hearts and homes in 1889 when Willoughby M. McCormick founded his company from a basement, selling products door to door. From comparably humble beginnings to rebirth following 1904’s Great Baltimore Fire to the founding of the Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association (mandate: to devise food purity laws that were way ahead of their time), McCormick led the way in innovation and entrepreneurship within the spice trade. As far back as 1933, the company enacted policies to raise wages, share profit and encourage corporate altruism, even within the time of the Great Depression, and in 1941 was one of the first corporations to institute a charity day – matching employees’ financial donations to worthwhile causes. And during its history, McCormick has promoted cultural expansion, acquiring seasoning companies in Mexico, India, Switzerland, Indonesia, Australia, and Europe’s culinary powerhouse, France. Among other notable achievements McCormick was included in Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list (2010), achieved a net zero energy consumption status for its distribution center – one of the largest commercial structures to achieve this status in the U.S. – and recorded $4.3 billion in sales in 2015.(6) As a homegrown and deeply rooted company, McCormick boats a significant legacy of American employment and entrepreneurship.
But there is one thing the company cannot do: it cannot move the equator north.
In a recent conference call, McCormick’s chief executive Lawrence Kurzius addressed the Trump administration’s proposal of higher tariffs for goods imported from Mexico. Although the initiative is envisaged as a way of encouraging American businesses to remain within the U.S. instead of off-shoring in pursuit of leaner labor costs and fatter profit margins, McCormick’s executives contend that the measures will unjustly impact their bottom line for a very simple reason: while firmly rooted on American shores, the company’s global expansion through corporate acquisition had at its heart the drive to source otherwise unavailable ingredients within their native climes. Some spices shipped in from Mexico – including allspice, achiote, and numerous dried chili peppers – simply do not thrive commercially this far north. And this has Kurzius concerned, as any adjustment of the cost of goods crossing the Mexican border will have a direct impact on the price of finished products. “Regardless of what our [U.S.] tax policy is, we’re not going to be able to move the equator into the United States,” he stated, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.(7)
And of course that cost increase will, of necessity, be passed along to the consumer.
And if the consumer will not bear that additional expense, they will likely buy from other suppliers, a move that would destabilize an otherwise healthy American business. But the fallout extends way beyond McCormick’s balance sheet and into the realm of public health. As always, cost cutting involves corner cutting – and the corners most often cut are those concerning cleanliness, health, and product safety. Already in recent months we have seen multiple recalls of spices and condiments due to salmonella, listeria, or lead contamination. In addition to the lead-in-turmeric debacle, recalls were issued in the European Union for products with undeclared allergens, such as almonds in the case of paprika sold in Denmark and France(8) or mustard and celery in a spice blend from Sweden.(9)
It’s a natural law of business that if demand for cheaper goods is driven up supply will rise to meet it. And, given that herbs and spices are ‘stealth ingredients’ – that is, we don’t necessarily know they’ve been added to a dish or to what extent, sourcing the cheapest products could present a serious danger. With a full 75% of spice imports into the U.S. coming from ‘third-world countries where spices are harvested and stored under conditions that don’t meet developed-world standards for hygiene and sanitation. For example […] Mexico,’ the public health impact is very real.(10) And regardless of the politics of wall building or taxation of overseas goods, our first priority must be public health and safety. And ultimately if that means taking a closer look at the tax codes for materials not grown natively within our borders, perhaps that’s a fundamentally easier proposition than the alternative – moving the equator north.
Do you have concerns about the safety of often-overlooked ingredients such as spices? If so, we’d love to hear from you!