Late in 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a recall of cumin samples for undeclared allergens. Adventitious presence of allergens is common, and the agency has conducted frequent recalls in this category. The number of allergen-related recalls that year was 34%, surpassing recalls of products caused by microbiological issues (30%).[1]

This small-scale recall soon snowballed into a widespread series of allergy-related recalls since the 2006 passage of the U.S. Food Allergen Labelling and Consumer Protection Act. A single Pennsylvania company recalled more than 35,000 pounds of its chili products; another company recalled more than 500 of its spice products from shelves nationwide. [2]

The presence of significant levels of peanuts in a popular spice resulted in tremendous monetary losses and brand damage for the food industry and uncertainty among allergen adverse consumers.

By February 2015, quiet reigned with no headlines about cumin in major magazines or newspapers. However, a few weeks later, almond contaminated spices found their way onto the plates of British consumers. On February 18, The Guardian, a well-known British broadsheet, featured an article titled “Spice – The New Horsemeat? Be Warned if You’re Allergic to Nuts,.” [2] Just weeks following the peanut-in-cumin crises, the food industry was experiencing undesirable headlines once again.

What happened? Low levels of almond allergens had been found in some spices of Indian origin, leading one to ask: Is there a likelihood of almond contamination in spices?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) tested a number of products, including cumin for allergens and found the presence of almonds.

If you are familiar with the spice trade and know how spices are produced traded, there seems to be a higher likelihood of contamination.

But it is important to note that all analytical tests are not perfect. Closely related species (e.g. almond and plums) have very similar sequences and, based on the test, may give a positive result for almond although only plum is present. There are many more examples like this. If a laboratory obtains low level positives, it is prudent to check if there is a chance of cross-specificity (the technical term for detecting not only the target species, but also a closely related species – in this case a species that is not an allergen which requires labeling).

Down the road, CFIA declared that their almond findings could have been false-positive, caused by Mahaleb (a spice also from a related species to plum and almond: Prunus mahaleb, a type of cherry) [3].

If you cast your mind back to the beginning of this millenium, you may recall that spices were in the headlines for the presence of illegal dyes, especially Sudan I, considered a genotoxic carcinogen [4]. And even earlier this year, spices made headlines pertaining to high-level pesticides [5].

Risk assessment and risk management programs are essential to produce safe foods. In industry sectors with complex chains, it is especially important to have a full understanding of critical controls points and analytical requirements.

For testing laboratories, it is pertinent to go beyond just producing analytical results. It is essential for them to have a sound understanding of the food chain and the products it tests. This includes the evaluation of potential cross-specificities. In an ideal situation, independent methods should be used to confirm results that do not seem plausible. View our spice and spice product testing capabilities!

[1] 2014 US FDA Food Recalls Summary

[2] (18 February 2015)




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