Wednesday, February 24, 2010


The clamor for declaring the place of origin of foods in western markets got a fillip recently after many people in 44 states in the US got infected with the pathogen Salmonella after consuming Salami and other Italian sausages. The source of infection was traced to the black pepper used in their preparation, reported to have been imported into the country by the manufacturer of these products. This episode comes close on the heels of a similar infection episode involving consumption of black and white pepper ingredients by one of the processors in the country affecting several people.

The Department of Agriculture in the US (USDA) is supposed to regulate salami though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is vested with the responsibility of overseeing the use of black pepper and other food additives by the processing industry. To add to the misery of the consumer the FDA authorities were not able to throw any light as to the origin of the spice ingredients used in the salami products under cloud. How ever credit must go to these agencies for the alacrity with which they joined together to investigate the incidence. Also to be appreciated is the action taken by the industry in recalling more than 1.2 million pounds of these products from the market owning up responsibility for the episode. Threat from Salmonella is forcing many industries to insist on radiation sterilization of spices to ensure that they are free from pathogens before using as input material in processed foods.

It is well known that Salmonella pathogen can cause serious fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy people infected with Salmonella can have fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In some cases the infection can spread to the bloodstream and result in severe illnesses such as arterial infections and arthritis. Frequent reports of Salmonella contamination now a days in plant food materials are worrisome as such contamination was earlier confined to foods originating from animal sources. A plausible reason could be use of contaminated water during cultivation and washing after harvesting which can carry the dormant bacterial culture under dry conditions all the way to the ultimate user, be it the consumer or the processing industry.

India has a major stake in world spice trade, being the largest producer of several spices including black pepper. In nineteen eighties, many foreign buyers of black pepper were insisting on compulsory washing of black pepper before exporting to remove mold spores that form on the crevices on the surface of the pepper corn during drying but processors can still short circuit the washing step to save on power and water. The danger is all the more real considering that pepper is dried invariably under the Sun as mechanical drying is expensive and contamination can occur from the contact surface and the environment. Irradiation facilities are not wide spread for the small scale exporters to depend on though the Spices Board constantly strives to help them to maintain international quality standards with their modern analytical quality assessment facilities and experienced technical personnel. More vigilance is called for if India has to maintain its role as the leading exporter of spices in the world.


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