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The (Un)usual Suspect: Why Organic Spices Aren't Always Safe

June Jones, a hairdresser in Tacoma, Wash., decided to concoct a salt-free seasoning after one of her clients complained that the salt substitutes on the market tasted terrible.

But now Jones's signature product, Jones Mock Salt, has been recalled due to possible contamination with salmonella.

That recall really got our attention. How could salt be contaminated with Salmonella?

If your blog's named The Salt, you've just got to find out. So we dug into the story, and found that it's due to a collision of two distressing trends: contamination of herbs and spices, and safety issues with organic products.

One of the ingredients in Jones's secret recipe is organic celery seed. And that's the source of the trouble.

Over the past few months Safeway and other big retailers have recalled organic celery seed because a batch of the seeds tested positive for Salmonella, which can cause fatal infections. No illnesses have been reported, but the suspect seeds were distributed from last May through December.

Recalls and outbreaks caused by contaminated herbs and spices are not uncommon. Hundreds of people in 44 states fell ill with salmonella in 2009 and 2010 after eating Italian-style sausage. The culprit was red and black pepper used to season the meat.

We called up June Jones to find out what went wrong. "My supplier actually sent to me a recall letter," she said. "I pulled everything off the shelves in December, and recalled online orders. It's very hard."

Her business will survive, she says, but she has taken a big hit financially. And she's worried because most of her customers use salt substitute because they have health problems.

"It was very disturbing to me. I supply to a heart transplant patient in Minnesota," Jones says. "I take every precaution myself as a manufacturer to make sure my product is totally safe, and I expect other people do that, too."

Because spices can be contaminated with bacteria and insects, big retailers routinely irradiate spices to kill pathogens. (Here's our recent post explaining why spices are irradiated.)

We asked Jones if the celery seed she bought was irradiated. "Irradiated? I didn't ask about that. I made my product from products that are supposed to be safe."

So we called up her supplier, Starwest Botanicals of Rancho Cordova, Calif. Lisa O'Keeley, the customer service supervisor, told us that the firm had found out about the contamination after a manufacturer using Starwest's seeds tested a batch and found Salmonella.

"Typically all of our products get run through a full gamut of testing by our quality assurance department," O'Keeley told The Salt. "When that product was approved, there was no evidence of salmonella at the time."

The seeds in question came from Egypt, which also happens to be the source of the tainted fenugreek seeds that were linked to the E. coli outbreak in sprouts in Germany last year.

O'Keeley says her Egyptian seeds were given an organic certification by an outside inspector. "We have very strict guidelines on what we can call certified organic. "

Were the seeds irradiated? "We won't purvey irradiated herbs," Keeley said. "Even if it's not organic, we don't."

But organic certification doesn't measure food safety; it's only about how a food was grown. Recalls of organic tomatoes, lettuce, and other produce for contamination with salmonella and other deadly pathogens are, alas, common.

Organic foods have even spread botulism — like the Italian stuffed olives we covered last year.

"Consumers think organic is safer," says Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, adding, "It's just a word. It really doesn't mean much aside from how it was grown." In other words, a food that's grown free of pesticides isn't also necessarily free of pathogens.

He should know; he researches outbreaks and covers them on BarfBlog, a go-to source on all things icky in food safety.

He doesn't have much sympathy for June Jones's situation, particularly since there's been an explosion of small food producers like her in recent years. "If you're going to sell to the public, you'd better know what you're selling. Whether she thinks she's part of the industry or just a small little producer, it doesn't matter. You make people barf, they're going to come after you."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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