Before being bottled and shipped to grocery stores, the spice needs to be sterilized. Major manufacturers use traditional methods like irradiation (literally, shooting radioactive particles at the crop) and fumigation (exposing the product to harmful, carcinogenic gas). Irradiation and fumigation are common because they are inexpensive to employ, and the cheap spices on the shelf probably went one of these routes.
There is a third, more expensive way to sterilize spices: steam. Steam technology, though complicated, offers none of the carcinogenic drawbacks of irradiation and fumigation. Unfortunately, manufacturers don’t usually disclose how they sterilized their spices.
Luckily, the organic label is here to save the day. If the label says "Steam sterilised (and cold pressed)" you know you are eating safe.
Here's how steam sterilisation is better than regular sterilisation:
The key methods of sterilization of spices in the non-organic industry are irradiation and ethylene oxide treatment. Irradiation has enough of a negative connotation in consumers minds that it is almost never labeled when used in food products, and generally does not require disclosure. Ethylene oxide treatment also does not have to be disclosed on treated products. However, one by-product of it’s application is the formation of ethyl chlorohydrin, a carcinogen, which is formed in high levels in some spices as they are treated. For example, as of February of this year, the FDA has banned it’s use on basil, since the reside of the carcinogenic compound approaches 1000 parts per million or 1 part per thousand.
At JGFC, for sterilization we only use steam – which is essentially super heated water used to kill microbes. Of the 3 methods discussed, it is the only allowable method in organic production. The application technology of steam treatment is quite sophisticated, since the need to maximize the flavor attributes while destroying microbes is essential. We believe it is an important piece of our food safety commitment and the control gained by having this in-house is important as the technology is becoming more widespread. It also allows us to service our customers with the highest quality products possible.
Basically, organic spices are the only option that are guaranteed to have been through steam sterilization.