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Insects and Rodent Hair in Your Food?

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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.

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

104 comments

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7:44PM PST on Mar 11, 2011

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.

12:51AM PST on Feb 8, 2011

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.

12:14PM PST on Feb 3, 2011

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.

10:11AM PST on Feb 3, 2011

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.

9:18AM PST on Feb 3, 2011

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...

2:37AM PST on Feb 3, 2011

een asbak jolie

10:44AM PST on Feb 2, 2011

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

7:24PM PST on Jan 31, 2011

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.~

4:42PM PST on Jan 31, 2011

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

12:23PM PST on Jan 31, 2011

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.

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