A spat of spice recalls have taken place over the last few weeks in the United States.
The JM recall seems to be small, affecting only small amount of product from a Georgia farmers’ market. The Gel recall expanded considerably over time, from a single lot to several different brand labels and lots. The Oriental Packing Company has recalled a whopping 188.5 tons of the stuff. While there doesn’t appear to be any official statement to suggest a link between the two turmeric recalls, nor between the turmeric and the curry powder, it seems likely to me that there is a single common source for all of them. Turmeric frequently appears in large quantities in curry powder, in part because it’s a traditional ingredient in many Indian spice blends, but also because it is relatively cheap compared to other common Indian spices and can bulk up a curry powder nicely.
There are a couple of possible explanations for these elevated lead levels. Since most spices are sold wholesale by mass, the addition of a substance like lead oxide could be a way to add bulk and thus increase margins. This is similar to a comment made in a blog post at The Acheson Group (which has subsequently been removed) suggesting the possibility that the spat of spice recalls in 2014-2015 due to the presence of peanut powder was also economically motivated food fraud. Peanut powder and ground cumin look awfully similar after all. The addition of lead oxide is, in fact, an old habit of less-than-scrupulous spice millers for a good long time. If this turns out to be the cause of the current contamination, it’s a reminder that old food habits die hard.
Another possible explanation is that turmeric, which is a rhizome like ginger, could have taken up lead that had (naturally or unnaturally) been present in the soil. The ability for plants to take up lead has been documented by the University of Minnesota.
Either way, a couple tons of turmeric and cumin powder are headed towards destruction. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a recall in Canada for turmeric or turmeric-based products in the coming weeks, similar to the sprawl of the nut-allergen cumin last year.