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.