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Lead in Curry Powder A Problem!

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety,Our Blog on October 26, 2018

Sirob Imports, Incorporated is recalling some of their curry powder after testing showed that it might contain elevated levels of lead, the FDA announced Wednesday. Brands distributed by the Lindenhurst, NY business that are affected by the recall include Corrado, Orlando Imports, Nouri’s Syrian Bakery, Mediterranean Specialty Foods Brand and Butera Fruit Market Curry Powder.

The Recall Info

The curry powder was distributed in Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. The FDA hasn’t announced how much curry powder is being recalled, exactly. Nor do we have a best by date; because curry powder is a dry, non-perishable good with a long shelf life, it doesn’t usually come with dates before which it’s best to consume it.

That’s potentially a problem. When a perishable good is contaminated, the window of threat is usually somewhat limited; even with the magic of refrigeration, the food won’t last forever. That means anyone who’s got the food in question in their freezer but may have missed the recall will probably eventually cook the food or toss it out. Because of this, the epidemiological curve for outbreaks of foodborne illness will often display a peak before the expiry date that’s on the food.

For curry powder and other foods that are non-perishable, a missed recall can be a much more serious matter. The item could sit on your shelf for months or years, seeing only occasional use, without you knowing that it poses a risk to your health. Sometimes, the risk that’s carried by contaminated food isn’t a short-term threat of illness; lead poisoning, for example, is usually brought on by long-term exposure, with lead accumulating in the body and causing negative health outcomes in the long term.

Again with the Lead?

Curiously, this isn’t the first time that curry powder has been found to have elevated levels of lead. In 2016, Oriental Packing Company recalled several of their curry powder brands after discovering that they were contaminated with lead. Affected products included Blue Mountain, Jamaica Choice, Ocho Rios, Oriental, and Grace. Some 377,000 pounds of the curry powder overall were affected by the recall.

What about curry powder might make it prone to contamination with lead? We don’t know too much about the current outbreak yet, so we’ll hold our tongues instead of speculating. For the 2016 Oriental Packing Company recall, however, the responsibility fell to a key ingredient in curry: tumeric. There had been a recall of turmeric that was suspected of lead contamination upstream, which in turn prompted the curry recall.

Why Lead?

Why lead? There’s a logical explanation for it. Tumeric is a spice that’s largely produced in India. It’s about the same bright yellow color as lead chromate. If you’re running short on tumeric, or if you’re trying to improve your bottom line by stretching out your supply, you might seek to adulterate it with a bit of lead chromate, hoping that the similar color and texture will leave nobody the wiser. An article published in Public Health Reports last year speculated that turmeric adulteration for enhanced color or weight was responsible for the 2016 curry powder recall.

Why is Lead Poisoning a Concern?

What’s so scary about lead poisoning, then? Why would people be afraid of a little lead in their tumeric? Lead’s natural, after all, and has many important uses. Before the discovery of its downsides, it was all over in the environment; people used lead paints, lead pipes, tin cans lined with lead, and a whole host of other amenities that were laced with the stuff.

Unfortunately, lead exposure can be quite nasty. Elevated levels from dust, food, air, or water show up in the blood and the bones. Constipation, abdominal pain, headaches, and a tingling in the hands and feet are among the more tolerable symptoms that might show up if you’ve got too much lead in your body. Sterility is another physical symptom that’s obviously much more serious.

The worst of lead poisoning, however, happens to your organ that’s most sensitive to the stuff: the brain. Irritability, memory problems, depression, slurred speech, trouble sleeping: that’s all the tip of the iceberg. You might lose your appetite or your libido. More serious consequences can follow, if you don’t take steps to reverse the situation: you may enter into states of stupor or delirium. Hallucinations can occur. Your sense of reality starts to fray as your system is overloaded with the metal.

In children, lead can seriously stunt development, leading to missed benchmarks and a much higher incidence of intellectual disabilities. There’s a growing body of evidence that exposure to lead increases rates of violence; one explanation for the nationwide drop-off of violent crime that the United States experienced in the 1990s was the elimination of most of the lead in paint and gasoline, leading to a kind of nation detoxification and a corresponding change in people’s behavior. That’s just a theory, and one that’s still being explored, but it speaks to the tangible effects that researchers see when looking at the consequences of heavy metal intoxication.

Preventing Lead Poisoning

Prevention isn’t too difficult, thank goodness, given that most lead has now been eliminated from the environment. If you’re concerned that you or your children are being exposed to more lead than you should be, you can pretty easily buy testing kits online or at a retail location to see how you’re doing (and whether there’s significant amounts of lead in the environment).

Of course, if you suspect that you’ve been contaminated with lead, but you can’t find it with a test, our recommendation is that you seek care from a qualified medical professional. Early medical treatment can help reduce the risk of potential long-term complications.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)