Spices and herbs: Ingredients which may pose a health risk

Spices and herbs can be naturally or accidentally contaminated with pathogens or foreign matter. The latter, such as certain unauthorised colorants, are not seldom added deliberately. The EU SPICED project was initiated in 2013 to further increase the safety of the supply chains in Europe. To mark the end of the project, the international symposium "Spices and Herbs - A Risk-Free Taste Experience?" is being held at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) on 1 and 2 June 2016. The results of the research project will be presented there and discussed with players from science, politics, trade and industry. The BfR is coordinating the research project, which is promoted with funding from the 7th EU framework programme. "In the SPICED project, we cooperated successfully with partners from seven European countries," says BfR President Prof. Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "Our focus at the BfR was on developing new analytical methods for the detection of contaminants in herbs and spices and improving existing ones. By doing so, we laid an important foundation for reducing possible health risks for consumers".

The European Union (EU) is one of the world’s largest markets for herbs and spices, most of which are imported as dried raw materials from regions outside the EU. Contamination can occur at numerous points in the production and supply chain and possibly pose a health risk to consumers. Although herbs and spices are only used in very small quantities, they are added to a great many foods. In the course of the SPICED project, research was done in six work packages. Among other tasks the production and supply chains of herbs and spices were analysed in order to identify possible vulnerable points for the entry of contaminants and to acquire new findings on consumer behaviour.

The contamination of herbs and spices e.g. through microorganisms can have far-reaching consequences, as one single batch of a product can be used in numerous follow-on products in the food chain and during food preparation at home and thus reach many consumers. In addition to this, several microorganisms - particularly sporogenic bacteria - can survive for weeks or months even in dried herbs and spices. For this reason, special focus was placed in the SPICED project on the reliable and standardised analysis of biological contamination in herbs and spices. When optimising the detection methods for various microorganisms, such as the sporogenic Bacillus cereus or Salmonella species, the antimicrobial properties of the various products were also taken into account.

Spices and dried herbs are often target of adulteration in international trade. This can have negative effects on consumer health, depending on the type of adulteration. In the past, for example, some producers have added illegal and potentially health-damaging colourants to poor quality paprika and curry spice. The scientists in the SPICED project have developed spectrometric and spectroscopic analysis methods for detecting various adulterations of herbs and spices in so-called authenticity tests.

The analysis of the entire supply chain, from the producer to processing, trade, transport etc. to the consumer, served to identify vulnerable points at which microbial or chemical contamination could be introduced. This knowledge helps to optimise prevention measures. In addition to this, various reporting, warning and monitoring systems were tested and suggestions prepared in order to prevent potential health damage to the consumer through contaminated herbs and spices, and to maintain the ability to react quickly in the event of a hazard.

It is often difficult to identify herbs and spices as the cause of a foodborne infection or poisoning as consumers, researchers, physicians and authorities concentrate primarily on the main food ingredients when looking for the reasons. One goal of the project is therefore to sharpen awareness for the possible health risks posed by contaminated herbs and spices. For this reason, the SPICED project was presented for example at a consumer fair in Hungary and at the Long Night of Research in Austria. The BfR and its project partners have also developed a travelling exhibition on the subject, which is presented in so-called Science Centres, especially for the target group families with children.

The SPICED Symposium is intended to promote scientific exchange between representatives of trade and industry, politics and science. The long-term objective is to continue the research activities and collaboration within the network that was built up during the project. Furthermore, the research results of the SPICED project were and will continue to be published in international journals and in a special issue of the scientific journal “Food Control”.

The detailed symposium programme can be accessed under the following link: www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/spiced-symposium-programme.pdf (PDF file,343.74 KB)

More information on the EU project SPICED is available on the project website: www.spiced.eu

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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