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Insects, Mold, and Other Legal Food Contaminants

Insects, Mold, and Other Legal Food Contaminants

Sarah Krupp | Divine Caroline

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.