What's in your spices? Bug parts and rat hair

WASHINGTON -- You may inadvertently be getting more than you bargained for when you put paprika in your chicken paprikash.

A new Food and Drug Administration report, "Pathogens and Filth in Spices," says that 12% of U.S. spice imports are contaminated with bug parts, rodent hairs and other ingredients more appropriate to a witches' brew than your mother's favorite recipe.

The FDA study also found that 7% of spice imports the inspectors examined were contaminated with salmonella. Salmonella are toxic bacteria that can trigger diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.

The amount of "filth" the FDA found in imported spice was twice that found in other kinds of imported food. The report characterized this as a "systemic challenge."

The agency conducted the research to figure out what kind of risks the contamination poses to the American public and what the FDA can do to lower any kind of health risks.

There is good news, however, regardless of the ick factor. The study did find that only a tiny fraction of the American public has gotten sick from spices. In the 37 years of records examined, it found only 14 outbreaks worldwide associated with spices and seasonings, resulting in fewer than 2,000 human illnesses and 128 hospitalizations. The FDA characterized that as a "relatively small number of outbreaks" compared to other foodborne illness.

The FDA says the issue may be underreported. Patients often forget to list spices when they describe what they ate before they became sick. People also eat spices in such tiny quantities that there is less exposure to pathogens than with food which is eaten in larger servings.

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