Do Spices Go Bad?

Like any food product, dried herbs and spices can harbour potential health risks. Learn more about them below.
January 20, 2020

Spices like paprika, cumin, black pepper and chilli are generally considered to be safe foods because their low moisture content doesn’t support the growth of food-borne bacterial pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter.

However, this assumption has been challenged in recent years by a number of food-borne illness outbreaks and food recalls linked to contaminated spices in several countries, including Australia and New Zealand.

A number of these products have also been recalled by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) due to undeclared allergens.

In light of the above, it’s important that operators and food workers in every food industry in Australia are aware of the potential health risks associated with dried herbs and spices.

How do spices cause food-borne illness?

Spices can become contaminated during cultivation, harvesting or processing in their country of origin; they can also become contaminated in the course of operations in a commercial food business or community organisation that serves food to the public, such as a hospital, aged care or childcare facility.

In fact, it’s remarkably easy for contamination to occur in a busy food business. All it takes is one sous-chef not washing their hands before grabbing a handful of salt; or a line cook putting the “extra” spice mix back in the container after dry marinating raw meat.

Once contamination gets into dried herbs and spices, it’s incredibly difficult to detect and remove.

Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli are the three microorganisms most commonly associated with microbial food recalls in Australia.

Many of these bacterial pathogens can survive for extended periods of time in low-moisture food products like dried herbs and spices. Salmonella, the principal bacterial pathogen associated with these food items, can survive in low-moisture foods for weeks, months or even years.

When added as seasonings to ready-to-eat foods, or added to foods that provide suitable conditions for growth, dried herbs and spices can cause food poisoning. 

To reduce the risk of food-borne illness, add spices to food before or during the cooking process. As a general rule, foods should be cooked to 75°C to destroy harmful bacteria and other pathogens.

Spices and food allergies

Like food-borne pathogens, food allergens can easily find their way into spices, dried herbs and similar products. Unlike (most) food-borne pathogens, food allergens are not destroyed by high heat. Once they’re in there, they’re in there for good.

Even microscopic amounts of a food allergen could cause a life-threatening allergic reaction, which is why absolutely everyone who handles food for the public must be trained to prevent cross-contamination. Online food safety training courses are a quick, easy way to complete the necessary training. 

Undeclared allergens — such as milk, peanut, wheat / gluten, soy, eggs and sesame — in dried herbs and spices are also a major problem for the food industry. In fact, for the past ten years, most food recalls have been due to undeclared allergens (a whopping 39% of all recalls from 2009 to present) and this number is only increasing.

The problem is so great that FSANZ has opened an additional line of enquiry to determine the root cause of undeclared allergen recalls. To learn more about the root causes of undeclared allergen recalls, problem detection and corrective actions, view their undeclared allergen annual statistics page.

It’s important for food businesses and related organisations to stay on top of product recalls and pull any contaminated products from their inventory to ensure the safety of customers, clients or vulnerable people in their care.

AIFS members get easy access to the latest food recalls to ensure that contaminated food products are removed from inventory and not served to customers.

AIFS Membership is free for 12 months with any AIFS nationally recognised online food safety course, such as the AIFS Food Safety Supervisor course, or it can be purchased on its own. Learn more about AIFS Membership

Businesses and organisations that need to enrol multiple employees in a food safety course may apply for an AIFS Business Account. Contact our support team to learn more about AIFS Business Accounts.