Insects and Rodent Hair in Your Food?

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.

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Jane R.
Jane R.4 years ago

Too many foreign objects in food is unnaceptable. I was eating a frozen Mexican dinner and bit into a small rock. Yes, a real rock! I sent the rock to the company saying " Like everyone, I enjoy little surprises, but not in my food. Therefore I'm returning it to you." Needless to say they sent me coupons for free dinners, but I didn't use them. I wasn't going to risk a broken tooth or worse.

Theresia H.
Theresia H.4 years ago

Found out about how there are insect legs at every chocolate bar sold out there when I was in junior high and I was really grossed out then. I began to just accept it now, just don't think too much about it. I occasionally see one unfortunate little insect whenever I look too closely at my broccoli (after I cut them into smaller pieces before eating them) haha.

John Smith
John Smith4 years ago

I'm starting to wonder where to draw the line now: if I totally stop cleaning and reuse dirty dishes, will I be like the healthiest person in the world from upping my resistance & immunity? (this is where you say "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." I just don't know quite where that fine line is anymore.

Mary P.
Past Member 4 years ago

When I was a teen I went to an agricultural high school, so this is no new news to me. Hey, it's been going on for years, and we're still alive.
Atleast all of the stuff is not harmful when ingested.
In some countries insects are considered a delicacy.

Chinmayee Jog
Chinmayee Jog4 years ago

I try to eat as much non-processed and organic food as I can - however the thought of insects/rodent hair/mold in my food really grosses me out! This is actually funny considering I'm Indian and have eaten on the streets of Bombay...the worrying thing is, aside from the ick factor, the above things could be carrying disease, and I'm no germophobe, but I do like things clean...

Voyager Nov
Past Member 4 years ago

een asbak jolie

Jennifer Martin
Jennifer M.4 years ago

Not as bad as all the artificial crap they add to food!

Laurie H.
Laurie H.4 years ago

This is reality, unfortunately, and not much anyone can do. The positive here, is that it has always been going on and we're all still here to discuss it.~

John Smith
John Smith4 years ago

...and roll the paper towel off BEFORE you wash your hands!

Reade H.
Reade H.4 years ago

This is merely the nature of mechanical processing. The reason they have these allowances is because to eliminate all possibility of these "additions" is impossible or would render most processed foods unaffordable. Hmmm... maybe this would be a good thing.

The author makes an excellent point. People that would rebel and be repulsed about the possibility of a rodent hair etc have no compunction about consuming highly processed food-like substances (e.g. twinkies and the like). The fact that most us, apparently, consume many hairs and insect parts we're no worse for it tells us something about the dangers of them.