Special Report: Investigating Motive and Spice Safety in the Big Peanut-Tainted Cumin Recalls

in Food Allergy, Peanut & Tree Nut, Recalls
Published: April 14, 2016

In early 2015, Allergic Living brought readers the news of mass recalls of food products containing peanut-contaminated cumin. A year later, went 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 moving forward.

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 straddles Eastern Europe and western Asia, and for centuries has been famed 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 recalls is proving as elusive as trying to find specific strands of saffron in the giant Istanbul spice market.

Related Stories:
Peanut-Contaminated Cumin Leads to Massive Allergy Recall
Inside the Peanut-Tainted Cumin Recalls: What Happened?

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 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 told Allergic Living in April 2016. 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 was 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. That concentration posed a significant risk for those with peanut allergy, even if the spice was used in small quantities.

“The 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. One of which is: 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.”

Supply Chain Confusion
and a Reaction Lawsuit

The spice chain is long and complex and, even with FARRP’s findings, the FDA told Allergic Living there’s an absence of “conclusive evidence” for the agency to determine that the adulteration was or was not intentional.

Cheryl Deem, ASTA’s executive director explains that in growing regions such as India and Turkey, farmers typically transport their spices to a collector in a village. The collector amasses spices from a number of farmers – so this makes tracing individual harvests particularly difficult. The spices may go through a few more collectors until the supply is great enough to go to a supplier.

At the supplier, it is washed, packed, and exported. In the U.S. there’s usually additional cleaning and treatment for pathogens, then the spice is mixed with other spices or packaged on its own for delivery to food companies or direct to shelves.

cuminmarket1The spice trade overseas in countries such as India isn't regulated like it is in North America. Photo: Courtesy Dr. Phil Johnson
There were rumors in 2015 that the adulteration of cumin could have occurred due to cross-contact from farmers using the same burlap bags for harvesting peanut and cumin crops. But Taylor now dismisses that idea. He says that form of exposure would only result in small amounts of peanut residue in cumin, not the high levels seen in the initial recalls.

Adding to the intrigue, Taylor says that once the recalls began in the U.S., whomever was responsible for the likely intentional contamination “immediately stopped.” The recalls that continued to occur were linked to already imported spice.

While the FDA told Allergic Living it has not pursued criminal charges with regard to the 2015 cumin contamination, a Texas woman filed her own lawsuit after suffering an allergic reaction from products named in the recall. After using a seasoning mix to prepare chili, Jillian Neal, a 31-year-old with a peanut allergy and asthma, “became violently ill, suffering from a severe allergic reaction, causing her family to rush her to the hospital where she received life-saving medical care.” The mother-of-two filed a suit against Reily Foods Co., the maker of the chili kit – one of four Mexican food products recalled by the brand in December 2014. The suit has settled, and details are being kept confidential.

Spice Industry Tests
and Consumer Safety

The questions of culpability surrounding the whole tainted cumin saga may never be resolved in a distant land, but where does this leave families managing peanut allergy, since cumin is in a wide range of seasoned foods?

For starters, it seems that the U.S. spice industry has been jolted into allergy awareness and testing is improving. “I don’t think there was a lot of awareness before about the potential for cross-contamination and now there certainly is,” said Deem.

Following the initial series of recalls with high levels of peanut in cumin, the FDA analyzed incoming lots of cumin powder and found “very low levels” of peanut protein, 20 ppm or lower, in the new imports, which led to additional product recalls. These quantities of peanut in cumin are largely considered to be the result of unintentional contamination, such as through sharing burlap bags used in harvesting, or even from farmers rotating peanut and cumin crops in the same field.

Experts agree that the ground cumin products recalled in the latter part of 2015 and, most recently the late Feburary 2016 recall of Deer brand Cumin Powder, were the result of the increased awareness and testing. This is being done due to what many in the food industry call an “abundance of caution.”

Next: What’s being done to protect consumer safety?