Inside the Peanut-Tainted Cumin Recalls: What Happened?
See our 2016 follow-up investigation here.
Updated March 13, 2015 – As the widespread series of recalls of cumin products containing undeclared peanut continues across the United States, Allergic Living reached out to regulators and researchers to learn how this massive problem occurred, and how consumers with allergies can be protected.
We can also report that the FDA has heard a dozen reports of allergic reactions related to the recalls, although the severity of them is not clear.
To start with the question of how so many spice and meat products – including nearly 600,000 pounds of beef, pork and chicken – came to contain peanut, the ultimate source and the means of contamination is still being determined. But there is some investigative progress.
Allergic Living is able to confirm that there were two sets of cumin products recalls: one for peanut and almond starting in fall 2014, and a second larger one for peanut only, starting in December 2014. Both were traced back to two separate Turkish suppliers, but so far there is no evidence the situations were related.
However, investigators say this doesn’t necessarily mean the contamination happened in Turkey, or that cumin from other countries is safe – it’s possible that these suppliers imported their cumin from another country, such as India, and the contamination could have happened there.
“The spice chain is long and complex. It can be very difficult to trace back further than one or two levels,” says Steve Taylor, co-founder of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, who is deeply involved with the issue. “That’s why it’s not prudent yet to say ‘these suppliers were all from Turkey, therefore it’s all their fault’ – they might have been innocent victims, too.”
Taylor notes that the first round of recalls was triggered by a random test by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency of a taco seasoning product, and that recall occurred on both sides of the border. The second and far larger series began when a company called Reily Foods discovered the cumin used in a chili seasoning kit contained peanut and almond. Reily staff notified the supplier, an American company whose name is not being divulged.
“But the American company that purchased this second batch of cumin from the second [Turkish] supplier and sold it to Reily Foods, also sold the same batch of cumin to 38 different companies,” says Taylor. “That’s when this thing started to mushroom.” (So far, this second recall series appears specific to the USA.)
“A lot of what happened from late December until now is all related to these 38 customers of this one supplier,” Taylor adds, noting that he believes Adams Flavors, Foods and Ingredients, the first company to issue a peanut-only recall in December 2014, was one of these customers.
In turn, Adams Flavors had its own customers further down the supply chain. “It gets complicated in a hurry,” says Taylor. The large number of companies involved explains why so many different types of foods are affected, including spice mixes, chili kits and also hundreds of thousands of pounds of seasoned beef, pork and poultry products.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the Reily Foods recall was actually for both peanut and almond, just like that first set of fall recalls, while the related recalls that followed were for peanut only. It’s unclear why this is, but at some point the focus shifted to peanut, even though it’s possible almond was in some of these products as well, because of the link to the supplier of Reily Foods. To Taylor’s knowledge, none of the products from this second set of recalls have been tested for almond.
Given this situation, Allergic Living recommends that almond-allergic individuals would be wise to avoid the recalled products as well, at least until more information emerges. So far no other tree nuts have been implicated. The FDA has not officially spoken in regard to almond, but on Feb. 18 issued an advisory recommending that “people who are highly sensitive to peanuts may consider avoiding products that list ‘cumin'”.
The FDA has told Allergic Living that it has received at least 12 consumer complaints of allergic reactions to recalled cumin products. However, the circumstances and severity of the reactions were not revealed. Both the FDA and the USDA, which regulates meat products, are closely monitoring the situation and admit there may be more recalls coming.
The tainted spice issue has also spread to Europe. In the U.K., one cumin brand (Bart Ground Cumin*), two fajita kits and a taco seasoning have recently been recalled for undeclared almond, but not peanut. The U.K. Food Standards Agency says the spice being implicated in the last three products appears to be paprika, which was sourced from Santa Maria, a big Scandinavian-owned spice producer. On February 17, Santa Maria pulled back more than 20 seasoning blends across Europe due to paprika that tested positive for almond.
Professor Chris Elliott, who led a British inquiry into fraud in the horse-meat industry, is suggesting that the spice contamination on both sides of the Atlantic may actually be intentional. In an article in The Independent newspaper, Elliott says he is “highly suspicious” that a dreadful cumin harvest in India is causing some producers to substitute or dilute their cumin with peanut or almond shells. Elliott, the director of Queen’s University’s Institute for Global Food Safety, believes this is affecting the global supply of cumin – although he has not yet expressed an opinion on the paprika contamination.
Any intentional nuts-for-spice tampering would be a huge concern for those allergic to peanuts or almonds, but Taylor cautions that this is pure speculation. He says there is no evidence at this point to suggest that any intentional adulteration has occurred. “We don’t know the root cause. There is rampant speculation and several theories,” says Taylor.
And in the The Independent article, a representative of the U.K. Food Standards Agency concurs, saying, “it’s “too early to say whether the substitution was deliberate or accidental.” Allergic Living will continue to monitor any developments in the U.S. and European spice cases.
One slight reassurance for any indavertent cumin exposures is that the spice isn’t typically used in very large amounts in cooking. “Cumin is pretty potent stuff,” says Taylor. “It’s used at 1 or 2 percent at the most in food products. And often far less than that. So you’d have to have a lot of peanut in the cumin in order for there to be sufficient carryover to provoke reactions in peanut-allergic individuals.”
To help avoid accidental exposures, the FDA is now recommending that “consumers who are highly allergic or sensitive to peanuts to consider taking precautions with any product – not just those that have been recalled – that contains ground cumin.”
The recalls have been something of a wake-up call for the spice industry, where Taylor says companies did not tend to think regular allergen testing was necessary. “The situation has now changed and widespread testing is being conducted,” he says.
*Imported Bart ground cumin spice has now been recalled in Canada, too.
Next: Allergic Living’s Big Chart of Recalled Products