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Questions Over Safety of U.S. Spice, Chicken Imports Driving Consumer Insecurity

By Lucas Witman

A recent survey found that consumer confidence in the safety of foods and beverages that are sold in the United States is currently at its lowest point in five years. Just one in six of those surveyed said that they felt a “great deal” of confidence in the foods they purchase. In contrast, in a similar survey conducted in 2008, four in six expressed a “great deal” of confidence.

There are a number of reasons that consumers today are feeling less confident in the foods and beverages currently on the market. Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness, concerns over pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms in the food supply and health concerns related to preservatives, artificial sweeteners and trans fats are causing alarm for a growing number of American consumers. Now, news has emerged regarding the safety of spices and chicken imported into the United States, further proliferating insecurity among those already wary of what they eat.

Spice imports

This summer, the Food and Drug Administration released a report, which revealed that as much as 7 percent of all spices imported into this country may be contaminated with salmonella. The agency inspected 20,000 shipments of spices imported into this country and found high levels of contamination on coriander, oregano, sesame seeds, curry powder, cumin and black pepper. The highest percentage of spices contaminated with salmonella arrived from Mexico (14 percent) and India (9 percent).

With such a high percentage of U.S. spice imports reportedly contaminated with salmonella, spices and seasonings companies are scrambling to assure consumers that their offerings are safe for consumption. Still, there are some intrinsic aspects of the spice industry that make reducing possible contaminations to zero a difficult task.

“People don’t take the necessary precautions,” said Mick Whitlock, President of Vanns Spices. “We need to be more careful about bringing things into the country.”

Vanns is a major U.S. spice company that imports its products from all over the world. Vanns searches the globe for the latest and most unusual spices, striving to be the first to offer these unique imports to U.S. consumers.

Although Whitlock states that his company does everything possible to ensure that the spices it offers are safe and free of salmonella, he understands that certain aspects of the traditional methods through which authentic spices are harvested and processed for export have contributed to this contamination. He cites Indian peppercorns as an example of this.

“Peppercorns in India are dried on the ground and then they’re scooped up and put into bags and shipped,” Whitlock said. “Over the years, India has gotten better. They put nets over the drying area.”

There are methods that some companies use in order to protect the safety of their product offerings, but many argue that these methods are either ineffectual or that they harm the quality of the spices.

“There are ways of treating them, and that does compromise the quality,” Whitlock said. “We try to avoid chemical treatment and don’t use any irradiation on our spices. A lot of our spices are steam sterilized.”

Whitlock states that Vanns will continue to rely on imported spices as well as continue its work to ensure that these imports are uncontaminated. Vanns does this primarily by demanding various certifications from its suppliers. The primary certification Vanns seeks from its suppliers is a certificate of analysis for every product that enters Vanns’ manufacturing facility. Vanns is certified by the Safe Quality Food Institute. SQF certification is globally recognized as a gold standard for food safety and quality.

Past third party certification, Vanns works to develop its own relationships with its suppliers, visiting their facilities and learning about the products firsthand. By coming to know each individual supplier, Vanns is able to trust that it knows and approves of the products’ source.

Processed chicken imports

In addition to the FDA concerns over the safety of spice imports, worries about the safety of processed chicken imports have also come to light. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially gave permission for chicken processed in China to be imported into the United States. What makes the issue particularly thorny for U.S. consumers is that this product does not have to be labeled as originating in China.

Consumers may in fact have a reason to be concerned about the safety of food imports from China, as there have been a number of incidents in recent years where foods produced in the country have been proven to be unsafe. Earlier this year, it was revealed that much of the rice sold in China may be tainted with the toxic metal cadmium. The Chinese dairy industry has been under fire since 2008, when milk and infant formula from the country was found to be contaminated with melamine, a dangerous chemical introduced to the product to increase protein content. And in May, in perhaps the most disturbing incident regarding food safety and quality in the country, Chinese officials announced that it had arrested several criminal traders for selling rat meat as mutton. Further contributing to U.S. consumers’ fears about the safety of poultry imported from the country are the recent Chinese outbreaks of avian influenza, a disease that can be passed on from dead chickens and turkeys to humans.

With U.S. consumers worried about the chicken nuggets on their dinner tables arriving, unbeknownst to them, from China, it might be expected that the U.S. poultry industry would be equally outraged. However, this has not been the case thus far.

“[The Food Safety and Inspection Service] has assured us, and reassured us, that they are fully committed to protecting the nation’s food supply and if China begins exporting processed chicken products to the United States, all food safety steps will be taken as if the products were processed in the United States,” said Tom Super, Vice President of Communications for the National Chicken Council. The NCC is a national non-profit trade association representing the U.S. chicken industry.

Super points out that although the USDA has approved the import of processed poultry from China, the chickens themselves must still be raised, slaughtered, plucked and frozen in the United States or Canada before this Chinese processing can even take place. It is thus unlikely that many poultry companies would find it economical to import Chinese processed chicken on a large commercial scale.

“One thing to keep in mind is that we’re talking about a miniscule amount of chicken in terms of what is both imported and consumed in the United States,” Super said. “Ninety-nine percent of the chicken we consume here [in the United States] is hatched, raised and processed in the U.S. We don’t expect that to change any time soon. There’s no shortage of chicken here.”

Super is somewhat incredulous that any processed chicken from China will in fact actually be imported into this country. “Think about it. A Chinese company would have to purchase frozen chicken in the United States, pay to ship it 7,000 miles, unload it, transport it to a processing plant, unpack it, cut it up, process/cook it, freeze it, repack it, transport it back to a port, then ship it another 7,000 miles,” he said. “I don’t know how anyone could make a profit doing that.” According to Super, the only market for expensive imported Chinese poultry is likely to be niche Asian markets.

The U.S. government

The NCC’s sense of security when it comes to the safety of Chinese poultry imports is largely dependent on the trade association’s confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to monitor these products and determine that they are safe for consumption. According to Super, FSIS has taken all the necessary precautions to protect U.S. consumers.

Still, the U.S. government has not always proven itself completely reliable as a barometer for what is safe to eat on grocery store shelves. “I think the government should be doing more,” said Whitlock. Although Whitlock says he thinks the government has made significant progress in recent years in improving the inspections of food and food facilities, it still has a long way to go to wholly protect the U.S. population from unsafe and unsanitary foodstuffs.

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