The processing and trade of spices has a long and important history. Spices are a valuable
commodity and have a significant impact on the economy of many countries. Small-scale
processing of spices can be economically viable and socially successful.
Most dried foods are comparatively low-risk ‘safe’ products in term of causing food poisoning and
are therefore suitable for production at the small-scale. However, spices are an exception to
this. They often contain high levels of micro-organisms that cause food poisoning and quite
frequently are contaminated with foreign matter.
Because spices are delicate products that are damaged by high temperature and extreme
processing, special care should be taken to ensure products are of top quality. There are several
key quality control points that small-scale processors need to be aware of.
Correct harvesting time
It is not possible to produce a high quality spice from low quality, inferior material. Harvesting
spices at the correct point of maturity is the key to producing good quality products. Quite
frequently spices are harvested when they are immature and before the flavour and aroma
compounds have fully developed. This results in spices with an inferior taste and aroma. Early
harvesting is usually through fear of the crop being stolen or because the farmer requires money
urgently. Every effort should be made to wait until the spices are fully mature before harvesting.
Spice crops are quite often contaminated by dust, dirt, pesticides, insects, animal hair and
droppings and a range of microbes. The crop must be cleaned before processing. The first stage
is to remove dust and dirt using a winnowing basket. This can be made locally from bamboo,
palm or other leaves. Someone used to this work can remove the dust, dirt and stones quickly
and efficiently (eg they could clean 100kg of pepper in an eight-hour day). Small machines are
available for cleaning but they are rarely cost effective.
After winnowing the crop should be washed in clean, potable water. Washing should be quick so
that the spice is not soaked in water as this reduces the quality. The washing water must be
changed regularly to prevent recontamination of spices by dirty water. It is essential that clean
water is used as spices are not heat treated later on during processing. Dirty water introduces
more bacteria, many of which cause food poisoning.
This is by far the most important part of processing to ensure good quality spices. Inadequately
dried produce will lead to mould growth. The sale value of mouldy spices can be less than 50%
of the normal value. In addition, the growth of food poisoning bacteria on some spices is a real
danger if proper washing and drying is not carried out.
See the Practical Action Technical Brief on Drying of Foods for further information.
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