As a child I was given over to brimming excitement whenever I had the opportunity to open a box of cereal that was clearly holding a foreign object inside. In this case the foreign object was most always a toy, sticker, or some shiny inedible object that was depicted in three colors on the front of the box. But sometimes, if I were really lucky, I would find an orphaned flake or cereal grain from another batch of cereal that clearly was not part of the homogeny that was the cereal I was holding.
In reality this was an indicator of the fact that many different cereals (of all shapes and sizes) were likely processed at the same plant and one errant O or flake got mixed in with the cereal monoculture. But for a six-year-old child, this held some near magical significance. In short, I kind of liked finding unexpected things in my food.
This past week Congressman Dennis Kucinich from Ohio filed suit against Longworth House Office Building cafeteria in Washington DC over something entirely unexpected in his food (a pesky olive pit found in a wrap he purchased there in 2008). Seems the congressman bit into the wrap (which was advertised as having pitted olives) and summarily sustained some pretty unpleasant damage to his teeth (or tooth). Needless to say, the Ohio representative did not derive the same amount of enjoyment from the unexpected surprise as I did as a child. But admittedly finding some lone cereal flakes in a box is a lot different than chomping down on an olive pit.
The fact is, while much has been made recently about the relative safety of our food supply, the food we purchase from cafes and supermarkets is just rife with all sorts of unadvertised stowaways. In virtually all foods that have been processed or packaged for human consumption there exists a level of “acceptable” foreign objects or “natural contaminants” in our food supply — meaning, among other things, bugs, mold, rodent hairs and maggots.
In a booklet that is updated annually or semi-annually, “The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of Natural or Unavoidable Defects in Foods That Present No Health Hazards for Humans,” the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition establishes acceptable levels of such “defects” for a range of foods products, everything from wheat flour to curry powder.
To give you an idea, with cornmeal the acceptable FDA average of insects per 50 grams is one or more whole insects, and for the same amount of cornmeal an average of two or more rodent hairs and/or one or more rodent poop is within acceptable limits. For canned citrus juices, a mold count of 10% or more is just fine.
As E.J. Levy, professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri, wrote for The New York Times back in 2009:
“In case you’re curious: you’re probably ingesting one to two pounds of flies, maggots and mites each year without knowing it, a quantity of insects that clearly does not cut the mustard, even as insects may well be in the mustard.”
But to be clear, this handbook makes clear that, while a lot of these defects in our food are repulsive, the vast majority of them are largely aesthetic. As a matter of fact, to even be on this list, these flaws (rodent hair and insect parts included) had to be determined as possessing no real health hazard (maybe just a little more fiber and protein in your diet, unless it is an olive pit). But without a doubt, most Americans being particularly obsessive about the cleanliness of their food will no doubt be sufficiently disgusted and repulsed when they learn about what constitutes “acceptability.” For most people, learning that there are bits of mold, animal, and excrement in their food will turn them off to a particular product, possibly for good. But there is a great difference between sanitation, which is biological, and cleanliness, which is largely psychological.
This is not to say that finding, or at least knowing, that there are such things in your food is not enough to make you forever squeamish about eating anything processed or packaged (remember, even apples sometimes have worms), but we as Americans often overvalue the perceived purity of our food, while undervaluing the more physically harmful qualities of the same food. This concept is epitomized by the highly processed junk food and fast food that remains so popular among American consumers.
Does the existence, or at least prospect of the existence, of these “foreign substances” repel you enough to stay far away from these particular food items? Do you feel that we, as a society, are too squeamish and reactionary when it comes to these issues of cleanliness? Have you ever actually found something alarming in your food? If so, do tell.