Four lawsuits have been filed over the past two years over significant levels of toxic heavy metals in big brand names of herbs and spices. An analysis by Consumer Reports (CR) in 2021 detailed the problem, but big box stores continue to carry the listed brands, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t yet set limits for heavy metal levels in dry herbs and spices.
The CR report, titled “Your Herbs and Spices Might Contain Arsenic, Cadmium, and Lead,” details an analysis of 126 individual products from national and private-label brands, such as Great Value (Walmart), La Flor Spices, McCormick & Co., Penzeys Spices, Spice Islands, and 365 by Whole Foods Market.
The analysis found that roughly one-third of the tested products (40) had “high enough levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium combined, on average, to pose a health concern for children when regularly consumed in typical serving sizes,” with most raising concern for adults as well.
McCormick & Co. was the first major brand to face a class action lawsuit after the report was made public. The suit was filed in January 2022. Per the suit, the defendant failed to warn consumers that some of its herbs and spices may be tainted with significant levels of toxic heavy metals.
The McCormick spices that contained problematic levels of toxic heavy metals included “culinary ground basil,” ground ginger, ground oregano, paprika, ground thyme, and ground turmeric.
The lawsuit outlines that the CR analysis shows that “it is possible for herb and spice companies to limit heavy metals in their products” as about “two-thirds of the spices [CR] tested did not have concerning levels of heavy metals.” They noted that other companies, such as Bolner’s Fiesta and Al Wadi Al Akhdar, do perform such tests.
The defendant would have had the knowledge that it could test for heavy metals but didn’t do so, and it could safely remove these metals from its herbs and spices, but, again, didn’t do so. The suit claims that instead, “the defendants chose to ignore the health of the consuming public in pursuit of profit.”
McCormick told CR that they did, in fact, test products for heavy metals in their manufacturing plants.
The company sent a statement to The Epoch Times that reads: “The quality and safety of our products is our top concern.
“Our ‘Taste you Trust’ guarantee means we go above and beyond regulatory requirements to reduce exposure to a broad range of contaminants.”
The next class action suit was filed in March 2022 against Amazon.com for products under its “Happy Belly brand,” followed by a June 2022 filing against Walmart for herbs and spices sold under its “Great Value” brand.
Both suits argue that the products listed contain toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, and lead and that the defendants neither listed the toxic heavy metals in the spices’ ingredients list nor warned consumers that they may be present.
The final class action suit to date was filed in August 2022 against Amazon.com and Whole Foods Market, alleging that the companies failed to disclose to consumers that certain Whole Foods herbs and spices, including “365 By Whole Foods Market” basil, cumin, and ground ginger, contain lead, arsenic, and cadmium.
Health Threats and Lack of Regulation
Although the FDA is responsible for herbs and spices, the lack of a limit on heavy metals leaves consumers with no guarantee of product safety. In the CR article, Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at CR, noted that spice companies must conduct periodic safety tests, but those are largely focused on harmful bacteria, such as salmonella.
Lead, arsenic, and cadmium, even in small amounts, can increase the risk of cancer, cognitive and reproductive problems, and other adverse conditions. Exposure puts children at risk for lowered IQ, behavioral problems (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Type 2 diabetes, and other health issues.
According to CR experts, in 31 products, levels of lead were so high that they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in a day. They caution that “just one serving—3/4 teaspoons or more—per day leaves little room for heavy metal exposure from other sources.” The nonprofit had previously found high levels of heavy metals in rice, baby food, and fruit juice. Also, in many recipes, spices and dry herbs are combined. CR findings show, for example, that “a dish that has just 1/4 teaspoon each of Great Value (Walmart) Chili Powder, Trader Joe’s Organic Cumin, and La Flor Oregano per serving would contain enough arsenic, cadmium, and lead to pose a concern.”
The CR analysis cited a 2018 study in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that found that 22 percent of food samples—mostly spices and herbal remedies—had high lead levels. The samples came from homes in North Carolina, where children suffered from lead poisoning.
Avoiding Toxic Spices
CR experts said it’s possible to limit exposure by choosing spices carefully.
CR noted that seven of the 15 types of herbs and spices, regardless of brand, tested below thresholds for concern, meaning that they were considered safe. For every other herb or spice, at least one brand landed in the “no concern” category.
CR offered several tips to limit exposure, including using herbs and spices that were less likely to contain concerning levels of heavy metals—such as pepper (black or white), garlic powder, coriander, curry powder, saffron, and sesame seeds—and seeking out the brands least likely to have high levels of heavy metals for specific spices. The brand “Simply Organic” also came through all tests without any products reaching the threshold for concerning levels of heavy metals.
Unfortunately, when it comes to herbs and spices, organic products may not be universally superior because U.S. organic standards don’t include testing for heavy metals, CR noted.
One of the safest courses of action is to grow your own herbs and spices, especially basil, oregano, and thyme, which tested the highest for heavy metals across all brands.
Another way to solve the problem goes to the source. CR has created a petition calling on the FDA to set stricter limits on food to “protect Americans from heavy metals.”
The Epoch Times reached out to Amazon, Whole Foods, and Walmart for comment. By press time, only Walmart had responded. It issued the following statement:
“We are committed to providing high-quality products and have always required that our private brand suppliers’ products meet or exceed FDA’s guidelines for naturally occurring elements that are not added during the manufacturing process. We will continue to defend the company against this litigation.”
This article was edited from its original version.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that McCormick & Co. had settled the lawsuit filed against them. McCormick hasn’t settled this lawsuit and continues to defend against the litigation.