In early 2015, Allergic Living brought readers the news of mass recalls of food products containing peanut-contaminated cumin. A year later, we’ve gone back to regulators and key experts to investigate the truth about how America’s cumin became tainted, and what’s being done to ensure the spice supply is safe.
Between the fall of 2014 and mid-2015, more than 675 food products – from spice mixes to taco kits to burgers and meat products – were pulled off shelves due to cumin found to contain undeclared peanut, in one of the largest food safety recalls U.S. regulators have seen.
Almost 500,000 pounds of product was recalled just by the USDA, which regulates meat products, while tens of millions of dollars of food was destroyed.
The FDA also received reports of 32 suspected allergic reactions associated with consuming peanut-containing cumin. And at least one expert strongly suspects the contamination was no accident – that peanut was intentionally added to the cumin. What’s less certain in this mysterious saga: Exactly who did it, and why they did it.
The story of the peanut-tainted cumin begins, not in the United States, but in Turkey, the Mediterranean country that straddles Eastern Europe and western Asia, and has been famed for centuries for its exotic spice trade.
FDA investigators have now determined that two suppliers from Turkey exported to the United States cumin that contained high levels of peanut protein. Whether the spice was grown on Turkish farms or imported by those suppliers from India – a major cumin producer – is not known.
The spice in question was pre-ground, so whole seed imports were not affected. But trying to determine who is ultimately to blame for peanut turning up in cumin and sparking mass American recalls is proving as elusive as trying to find specific strands of saffron in the giant Istanbul spice market.
Steve Taylor, co-director of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska, has been close to the tainted cumin investigation. When Allergic Living spoke to him in March 2015, the biochemist and food scientist was still skeptical of suspicions that the peanut contamination had been done on purpose. But with further investigation and some significant test results, Taylor has changed his view.
“I have a very strong suspicion that [the peanut in cumin] was intentional because the levels were so high,” Taylor recently told Allergic Living. FARRP testing found that the products initially flagged as contaminated, made by Ortega, contained cumin with up to 5,000 parts per million (ppm) of peanut. This meant that peanut was up to 0.5 percent of the cumin that had been used as an ingredient in the brand’s spice mixes and sauces. Other food products that were subsequently recalled in connection with this contamination reportedly contained cumin made of up to 5 percent peanut (50,000 ppm). One product tested as high as 100,000 ppm (10 percent) of peanut in cumin – a concentration that posed a significant risk for those with peanut allergy, even if the spice was used in small quantities.
“This series of recalls for cumin contamination was alarming to the food allergy community, which depends of allergen labeling,” said Gwen Smith, Allergic Living’s editor. “And when you see these test results, there clearly was reason to worry.”
In a joint report, FARRP and the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) suggest that the dilution of cumin was the result of “economic-motivated adulteration.” However, there has been no conclusive evidence of this and the idea raises more questions, such as: since peanut is more expensive than cumin, why would someone add undeclared peanut to cumin?
As for who is behind such a high level of contamination with one of the Top 8 big allergens, Taylor says: “The whole thing is shrouded in mystery and I think these suppliers want it that way.”
Next: Unraveling supply chain confusion