McMcormick Company

McCormick spice plant worker Mae Fitch works on an imitation rum extract line in Hunt Valley Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. (Steve Ruark / BALTIMORE SUN / November 7, 2012)

Spice makers in Baltimore defended their food handling practices after a Food and Drug Administration report said that 12 percent of imported spices were contaminated with insects, animal hair and other things over a two-year period.

While acknowledging that many spices are grown in developing countries with poor food-handling practices, they said imported spices typically undergo extensive cleaning, processing and treatment for pathogens after entering the United States.

The FDA's findings "shouldn't scare people from ever buying a spice again," said Mick Whitlock, president of Baltimore-based Vanns Spices, a more than 30-year-old family-owned company with a spice plant in Woodlawn.

The FDA is scrutinizing the safety of spices after outbreaks of salmonella-related illnesses. Pathogens such as salmonella in spices caused 14 outbreaks in nine countries from 1973 to 2010, the FDA said. Food-related pathogens caused nearly 2,000 illnesses, with 128 hospitalizations and two deaths, the report said. In five of the outbreaks, infants and children were most affected.

The FDA reviewed samples of spices imported from fiscal 2007 to fiscal 2009 and found animal hair and insect fragments among the most common contaminants, indicating in some cases inadequate packing or storage conditions.

Vanns, which bottles, packages and blends 1.5 million bottles of spices a year, does extensive research in ingredients and products that are brought in, mixed and sent out for sale in grocers such as Whole Foods and Eddies of Roland Park, Whitlock said.

The spice maker sends samples out for lab analysis and has an independent internal audit done each year, he said. It also is certified by Safe Quality Food Institute programs.

Sparks-based McCormick & Co. Inc. said it conducts several million ingredient analyses each year and uses a steam pasteurization process on spices that are grown in the United States and other parts of the world.

"For nearly 125 years, McCormick has an unmatched track record in delivering safe, high-quality products to people around the globe," the company said in a statement. "It's important to purchase your spices from a trusted resource."

McCormick stressed its commitment to safety and quality, adding: "We welcome any efforts to build a safer food supply chain and continue to work with the federal government and trade associations to that end."

The American Spice Trade Association said the FDA data shows spices are not a significant cause of food-borne illness in the U.S.

"The FDA identified three food-borne illness outbreaks attributed to spices in the U.S. in the 37-year period from 1973 to 2010," the association said. "This is in contrast to hundreds of such incidents during the same period attributed to leafy green vegetables, cantaloupes and other fresh produce. … One outbreak involving spices is one too many and provides a wide range of resources and education for the industry to mitigate this risk."

The spice industry uses special equipment to clean spices, such as air separators, sifters and spiral gravity separators that separate sticks, stones hair, insects and other debris from the spice, the trade group said.

"Consumers can have confidence that the spices they purchase at their grocery store from reputable companies are clean and safe to eat," the group said in its response.

The FDA said that the tendency to eat small amounts of spices with meals lowers the probability of illness and contributed to a relatively small number of identified outbreaks. The report, released Oct. 30 and not yet finalized, will be used to develop plans to reduce or prevent illness from tainted spices.

The agency said a lack of preventive steps, such as failing to limit animal access to the spice source plant during harvest or drying phases, contributed to spices becoming tainted. Many spices are produced on very small farms where farm animals are used to plow, crops are harvested by hand and spices are dried in open air. Producers might store spice for years before selling to a buyer ,who may mix spices from several farms for sale to spice processors, the FDA said.

Whitlock said he believes the final FDA report will help "put pressure on some of the countries the spices come from, to do a better job in those countries before they come into this country."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com