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Insects, Mold, and Other Legal Containments in Our Food

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Eating fly eggs, rodent hair, mold, and fecal matter may sound a lot like a challenge on Fear Factor, but it’s just an episode of our daily lives. 


Unintended additives—indiscernible to the naked eye and unlisted on ingredient labels— squirm, crawl, fly, and plop into much of what we eventually put in our mouths. In fact, these unsavory morsels are so common that the Federal Drug Administration permits certain levels of these “natural contaminants” in our food. The FDA’s Food Defect Action Level Handbook establishes the amounts of contaminants permitted in about a hundred plant-derived foods. At or below these levels, the FDA has determined that the defects— however icky—are harmless. 


What Bugs Lie Beneath
Under the regulations in the FDA’s handbook, a hefty bowl of spaghetti is permitted 200 or so bug fragments—one for every gram of pasta—fifteen fly eggs, and a maggot. Add a pinch of FDA-acceptable ground oregano and it might be spiced with one hundred itsy bitsy bug bits and a rodent hair. And while hot dogs get a bad rap for the mystery meat parts ground up in them, you might want to take a closer look at the condiments. A few spoonfuls of sauerkraut could include fifty thrips—a small, slender bug pointed at both ends. Even chocolate is impure. As you savor a chocolate bar, you might also be ingesting some sixty insect parts. 


Of the foods in the handbook, many are everyday staples. Wheat can contain an “average of nine milligrams or more rodent excreta pellets and/or pellet fragments per kilogram.” The shaker of cinnamon in your spice cabinet could have some 400 bug fragments and eleven rodent hairs. In one eighteen-ounce jar of peanut butter, there must be more than six rodent hairs and sixty insect parts before the FDA considers it tainted. 


Unavoidable Insects
In an email, an FDA spokesman said the handbook reflects food items “that had a long history of being adulterated” and the agency scrutinizes the many products not listed on an individual basis. But how the FDA selected the products remains something of a riddle to the outsider. For instance, the handbook prescribes the maximum levels of defects in ground marjoram (1,175 bug fragments and eight rodent hairs in ten milligrams) and in mace (three milligrams of mammalian excreta per pound), but makes no mention of basil.  


The FDA set the levels by testing samples of a particular product from various sites throughout the country and determining the average amount of defects present under “best available manufacturing practices.” Meeting the handbook’s standards doesn’t give a product a free pass, though. A processed food may fall below the FDA’s defect action levels, say, but carry salmonella or E. coli. Nor does it follow that an item with a few more insect parts and rodent hairs than allowed poses a health risk. Rather, they act as a bellwether—a clue that the facility where it’s handled is unsanitary and more likely to produce food with dangerous contaminants. The FDA is, however, reviewing its standard on mammalian excreta to determine if the levels permitted pose a greater risk of salmonella contamination. 


The FDA says that most edibles have fewer defects than the maximum levels allowed. But the agency makes no apologies about permitting contaminants, stating, “it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”  


The FDA also notes that pesticides will not solve the bug problem since they are mainly intended to protect the plant. Not to mention that eliminating insects by using more pesticides arguably presents a larger threat to human health.


Just a Little Extra Protein
Perhaps, the FDA has a point and not all of these insalubrious extras in our food should cause alarm. After all, the rest of the world—about 80 percent of the global population—


eats bugs as part of their regular diet. In Oaxaca, Mexico, street vendors sell crispy, seasoned crickets. Thailand raises water beetles and bamboo worms commercially as a dietary staple. Proponents of entomophagy note that it is a greener diet—insects need fewer resources than animals and they don’t produce greenhouse gases as cattle do. Plus, insects can deliver just as much, and sometimes more, protein and iron as meat. Water bugs, for example, have four times as much iron as beef. 


Justifying rodent hair and droppings is harder to swallow, but according to the FDA, rodents are nearly impossible to banish completely from mills, granaries, and factories. For the most part, the sanctioned levels of defects in the handbook don’t seem to jeopardize our health. (Although, some believe that the impurities in food exacerbate allergies.) Beef, which is not mentioned in the handbook, causes the vast majority of food-related illness and deaths. 


What is most worrisome—to the rational brain, not the gag reflex—is whether the FDA monitors food manufacturers closely enough to discover when defects do exceed the limits. After all, the FDA didn’t catch the gaping holes that existed for years in the ceiling of a Georgia peanut plant, allowing water to leak through. Dirty water at the Peanut Corporation of America plant may have caused the salmonella outbreak earlier this year that sickened more than 500 people and is blamed for eight deaths. So while a few hairs or spider legs in our food won’t cause us any harm, they might be representative of a much larger threat lurking in the sidelines.

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