Food safety experts target 'stealth ingredients' causing foodborne illness

November 4, 2013 (BEDFORD PARK, Ill.)

Local researchers are developing cutting-edge technologies to try to tackle those hidden sources of infection that can fly underneath the radar. But for people who've suffered serious foodborne illnesses, the consequences can be lasting and severe.

"It's hard for me to imagine going through anything worse," said Cameron Turner, food poisoning victim.

Chicagoan Cameron Turner says a recent case of food poisoning turned very serious when a seemingly typical stomach illness led to something called reactive arthritis. It left him in so much pain, he couldn't even move.

"Weakness to the point where I really couldn't move on my own, without holding myself up against furniture," said Turner.

"It can be devastating . . .There's a lot of pain and suffering behind the stories," said Deirdre Schlunegger, food safety advocate.

At the "Stop Foodborne Illness" organization in Chicago, a gallery depicts some of those sickened and killed by contaminated food -- a wall that motivates those who are on the lookout for solutions.

"We've had people who are members of our organization that have been sick from ingredients that they never even knew existed in their food-- small ingredients that you wouldn't think about," said Schlunegger.

"We sometimes call these stealth ingredients because they're not things you'd think about, but they're things in small amounts, that can compromise the safety of the product," said Dr. Robert Brackett, IIT Institute for Food Safety and Health.

Fighting contaminated "stealth ingredients" is a new focus for these food safety experts in southwest suburban Bedford Park. Spices, peppercorns, even flour -- ingredients that you might not typically associate with food poisoning -- can cause big problems.

Last week in this draft report by the Food and Drug Administration, salmonella was reported in nearly 7 percent of imported spices. According to FDA investigators, 14 outbreaks nationwide have been attributed to contaminated spices-- causing nearly 2,000 illnesses, 128 hospitalizations, and even two deaths.

"These ingredients are used in small amounts so people tend to forget about them. In fact, what we've seen over the past few years is that many of foodborne outbreaks have been traced back to some sort of dry ingredient," said Dr. Brackett.

These are two state-of-the-art techniques that are being tested to decontaminate potentially dangerous dry ingredients.

Researchers are testing this "pulse light" machine that flashes a high-powered beam originally designed to strip paint off of airplanes. Now it's being used on food to sterilize it. This "cool plasma" technology treats dry foods with a low temperature gas to make it safe, without hurting the quality.

"As we discover some of the sources, that's where we come up with new technologies to decontaminate them for the public," said Dr. Brackett.

"Whenever my stomach feels a little bit upset, I think to myself, oh my gosh, did I eat something? Is this going to happen all over again?" said Cameron Turner, food poisoning victim.

Survivors of severe foodborne illness are warning that food poisoning shouldn't be taken lightly.

"As someone who's been through hell and back from eating something that apparently I wasn't meant to eat, just watch yourself. Be careful," said Turner.

So what should you do to keep safe at home? To avoid so-called "stealth ingredients" food safety experts recommend using only trusted brands of spices, and cooking dishes after seasoning. The Spice Industry Association on Monday rejected those critical FDA findings, saying that the agency tested raw imported spices at American ports and that they all undergo extensive treatment for pathogens before sale.

Additional information:

FDA Draft Report: Pathogens and Filth in Spices
Food safety tips:
Stop Foodborne Illness:

The American Spice Trade Association, that works to ensure the supply of clean, safe spice, shape public policy on behalf of the global industry, released this statement concerning the FDA Draft Risk Profile on Pathogens and Filth in Spices:

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

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday, October 30, 2013, released its report, "Draft Risk Profile: Pathogens and Filth in Spices." The Agency states that the report will be used in the development of plans to reduce or prevent illness from spices contaminated by microbial pathogens and/or filth.

Data presented in the draft risk profile shows that 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. This is in contrast to hundreds of such incidents during the same period attributed to leafy green vegetables, cantaloupes and other fresh produce. The American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) believes that one outbreak involving spices is one too many and provides a wide range of resources and education for the industry to mitigate this risk.

Most spices require tropical or subtropical conditions to grow and therefore are grown in developing countries around the world where sanitation and food handling practices may not always be adequate. All agricultural products, including spices, are commonly exposed to dust, dirt, insects and animal waste before they are harvested and there are additional opportunities for contamination during primary processing, storage and transportation.

For the draft risk profile, the FDA used sampling and testing at ports of entry into the U.S. and reported on its findings of pathogens such as Salmonella, and filth, such as insects and animal hair, in spices. Much of the spice presented at import is essentially a raw agricultural commodity that will undergo extensive cleaning, processing and treatment for pathogens once it enters the U.S. to ensure it is clean and free of microbial contamination.

The spice industry employs a variety of equipment to physically clean spices including air separators, sifters and spiral gravity separators that separate sticks, stones, hair, insects and other debris from the spice. These techniques are designed to ensure finished product complies with FDA defect action levels for food - – permissible "levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans, such as insect fragments and rodent hairs." Foods covered by the agency's defect action levels include canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, jams, juices, peanut butter, popcorn, chocolate, raisins, noodles, cornmeal, wheat flour and spices.

As the report correctly notes, the spice supply chain is complex. ASTA has published guidance for the spice industry on best practices to mitigate the risk of contamination and has worked and continues to work with companies and other associations to disseminate this guidance throughout the supply chain.

ASTA has represented the interests of the American spice trade for more than 100 years and actively supports a range of programs to ensure the trade of safe and clean spice."

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