Oh, my! Rodents and roaches in the food supply

Network television sure knows how to capitalize on a holiday, which is why fans of Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain were watching episodes featuring aphrodisiac edibles and food “porn” this past week.

But if Zimmern is behind it, you have to expect some bug consumption. One almost feels sorry for shoppers at Minnesota’s Mall of America who sampled crickets disguised in a chocolate coating. That is, until one reads a recent New York Times opinion and realizes that we’re all eating bugs and don’t even know it.

As everyone is decrying peanut paste and the government’s inability to prevent the wide-scale presence of salmonella in a major food commodity, opinion writer E.J. Levy took the opportunity to shed some light on the government’s permissive stance toward much larger bugs.

By Food and Drug Administration standards, peanut butter may contain approximately 145 bug parts in an 18-ounce jar; five or more rodent hairs in that same jar; or more than 125 milligrams of grit. Read the whole piece to find out why the FDA considers these “natural contaminants” of “aesthetic” concern, rather than a health hazard.

Granted most of these contaminants have been subjected to high temperatures during processing, which is probably why the fly eggs in tomato juice don’t squirm to life, that and the pH level. Echoing the sentiments of my sister-in-law who shared this article with me: “gross.”

But what else can we expect? The fact is, contrary to the myth the American food industry has perpetuated since the turn of the last century, processed food is not “cleaner” food than what farmers grow in the (increasingly contaminated) dirt. And the facilities host (in addition to rodents and flies) roaches and mold, as seen in the salmonella-tainted peanut plant under investigation.

Also gross. But consider the disproportionate reaction. While salmonella has us concerned, the thought of rodents and roaches can make us want to retch. Yet which is the real health hazard?

If you’ve ever taken a food handler’s course, followed a county health inspector around or read the local restaurant inspections with keen interest, you’ll recognize the primary concerns are food temperature, handwashing and the threat of cross-contamination, all of which breed nasty bacteria like salmonella that have the power to make us seriously ill. By comparison, roaches and rodents are merely a nuisance.

I refer to the disproportionate reaction because while the threat of invisible salmonella may give shoppers pause, it’s the visual image of bug parts in the peanut butter that stand to change buying habits. Consumers are unlikely to sympathize with the government’s assertion that it’s “impractical to grow, harvest or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”

But there is a practical way to cut down on the natural contaminants: Cut down on your processed food. Fresh fruits and vegetables may certainly harbor some microscopic fly eggs or pesticide residue (if not organic). But those contaminants haven’t been compressed from dozens of tomatoes into a single can of tomato paste. And the fewer stops your food makes to the market, the fewer opportunities there are for it to pick up contaminants.

Or try growing some of your own produce. The inconvenience of picking a stray slug from a head of garden lettuce is well worth a certain peace of mind that comes with knowing exactly where one’s food has been.

Unless, like Zimmern, you’re game for eating bugs.

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