16 Foods With Scary Surprises

  • You Are What You Eat

    Warning: Don’t read this during your lunch break. Ask any person how many insect fragments or rodent hairs he or she considers acceptable in their food and you will probably get the same answer: Zero. Ask the Food and Drug Administration, however, and you’ll get an answer that may change how you view the processed food industry in this country. It turns out that the FDA, in its long history of managing food safety, has established guidelines for a number of contaminants that it will allow in our food supply. Such “maximum levels of natural or unavoidable defects” are based on the premise that “it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects,” the FDA explains in its Defect Levels Handbook. Photo Credit: rocksee
    The Fine Print
  • The Fine Print

    The FDA is quick to point out that its guidelines don’t simply give food producers carte blanche to push out products just below given contamination levels, since they can be held accountable for the cleanliness of manufacturing or storage practices regardless of what contaminates the item itself. The agency also stresses that average defect levels in these products are actually much lower than the thresholds it sets. “The levels represent limits at which FDA will regard the food product ‘adulterated’; and subject to enforcement action”, the Handbook explains. Still, that “enforcement action” is set to get some sharper teeth if a new food safety bill, which just passed in the Senate, becomes law. The bill would grant the FDA the power to demand a recall of a contaminated product, rather than its current authority to issue product safety warnings that in turn motivate producers to recall their products. Here are 17 of the most common (and therefore most disturbing) products for which the FDA has set contamination thresholds. Keep in mind that inclusion on this list does not mean that the product is unsafe in any way, since most contaminants are considered for their aesthetic significance rather than for health risks. As gross as this list may be, apparently you won’t die if you ingest a few insect heads along with your Fig Newtons. Photo Credit: Vivatier
    Potato Chips
  • Potato Chips

    Oh, potato chips. I hate to make a delicious snack seem anything but delicious, but this ubiquitous treat suffers from the same vulnerabilities of the humble potato it derives from: Rot. The FDA’s action threshold kicks in when 6% or more of chips show rot from pre- or post-harvest infection. Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
  • Tomatoes

    No fewer than 15 tomato products made it onto the FDA’s list, and none of them were fresh. Mold is a recurring theme in most canned and powdered applications of the fruit (yes, tomatoes are technically fruits), with acceptable levels of mold contamination going as low as 15% in canned tomatoes to as high as 45% for that french fry favorite, ketchup. Much more disturbing, though, is the presence of the Drosophila fly, its eggs, and its maggots in tomato products. And yes, we said maggots. The FDA allows up to 30 fly eggs per every 100 grams of tomato paste, pizza or other sauces, or up to two maggots per every 100 grams of tomato juice. Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
  • Eggs

    Vegans will be happy to learn that as long as they continue to avoid frozen egg products, the only dairy product on the list, they will not be at risk of ingesting the bacteria that comes as a result of decomposition. The FDA will take action when it finds two or more cans of rotten egg product with 5 million or more bacteria per gram. And you thought Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham was just a children’s story ... Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
    Red Fish
  • Red Fish

    While we’re on the Dr. Seuss tip, the headliner of his classic One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish made its way into the FDA Defect Levels Handbook as well. The reason: Copepods. We’ll let the FDA explain what copepods are: “Small free-swimming marine crustaceans, many of which are fish parasites. In some species, the females enter the tissues of the host fish and may form pus pockets.” The FDA takes action only when 3% of Red Fish or Ocean Perch fillets contain one or more copepods accompanied by pus pockets. Photo Credit: Adam d
  • Spices

    Who knew your spice rack was a veritable hot zone of contamination? More than a quarter of the entries on the FDA’s list (31 out of 109) are dried spices that may be sitting in your kitchen right now. You may not want to hear it, but more often than not the contaminating agent is … wait for it … insect parts, rodent hairs and mammalian excreta. Here are some highlights for when the FDA takes action:
    • Ground Oregano: 1,250 or more insect fragments per 10 grams
    • Ground Paprika: Average of more than 11 rodent hairs per 25 grams
    • Ground Cinnamon: Average of 400 or more insect fragments per 50 grams
    • Fennel Seed: Average of more than 3 milligrams of mammalian excreta per pound
    • Ground Marjoram: Average of 1,175 or more insect fragments per 10 grams
    • Ground Pepper: Average of 2 or more rodent hairs per 50 grams
    Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
  • Spinach

    Spinach may have been Popeye’s favorite food, but that’s probably because he didn’t know it sometimes contains insects and their larvae in the canned or frozen form. Apparently those insect problems are widespread, because the FDA has specified three separate situations in which it will take action on spinach products that are found to contain the following:
    • An average of 50 or more aphids, thrips and/or mites per 100 grams
    • Two or more 3 mm or longer larvae (or larval fragments), or caterpillars whose aggregate length exceeds 12 mm
    • Eight or more leaf miners of any size per 100 grams, or four or more leaf miners that are 3 mm or longer per 100 grams
    Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
    Peanut Butter
  • Peanut Butter

    Peanuts and peanut butter carry a number of contaminants; some pose a real health hazard, while others are just plain nasty. Aesthetic concerns will prompt the FDA to take action on peanut butter, but only when it contains an average of 30 or more insect fragments, or one or more rodent hairs per 100 grams. Peanuts, on the other hand, are subject to FDA enforcement when an average of 5% or more of shelled peanuts (versus 10% for unshelled peanuts) are found to be moldy, rancid, dirty or infested by insects. The health concern here is real, as moldy nuts may contain mycotoxin producing fungi, the blanket term for toxic molds that can poison humans in a variety of ways. Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
  • Popcorn

    It’s hard to hate popcorn, but once you learn the acceptable levels of rodent contamination that can make it into that bag of Jiffy Pop, you just might. The FDA will take action when any of the following three conditions are met:
    • One or more rodent excreta pellets are found in one or more subsamples of a particular popcorn product.
    • Two or more rodent hairs per pound are found in 50% or more of the subsamples.
    • 20 or more gnawed grains per pound and rodent hair is found in 50% or more of the subsamples.
    Movie time! Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
  • Raisins

    If you are like most people and haven’t yet eaten those raisins you got while trick-or-treating, you might find “nature’s candy” to be the scariest treat of all. While natural and golden raisins both suffer from occasional mold and grit, golden raisins are the ones you need to check for insect eggs. Remember the Drosophila fly that feasts on tomatoes? Well, apparently it makes its way into the nation’s raisin supply as well. So much so that the FDA won’t mandate action unless 10 or more whole or equivalent Drosophila flies and 35 of its eggs are found per 8 oz. of raisins. Yet another reason why people giving out raisins on Halloween should be ashamed of themselves. Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
  • Macaroni

    While the FDA appears to have no problems with the Day-Glo orange color of many popular brands of Macaroni & Cheese on the shelves of your local supermarket, it does have a problem with insect and rodent filth. Of course, that’s only if it finds either an average of 225 insect fragments per 225 grams in six subsamples, or an average of 4.5 rodent hairs per 225 grams in six subsamples. EasyMac just got a bit harder to stomach. Photo Credit: Irish Typepad
    Fig Paste
  • Fig Paste

    You may not think you've ever eaten fig paste, but hasn’t everyone tasted a Fig Newton at some point in their lives? There’s definitely fig paste in those. And sometimes insect heads. Yes, fig paste is the only product on the list for which the FDA has specified acceptable levels of insect heads. Food manufacturers be warned: The FDA will crack down whenever it finds 13 or more insect heads per 100 grams of fig paste in two subsamples. So keep it to a dozen heads or less, fellas. Photo Credit: Eric Dickman
    Black Currant Jam
  • Black Currant Jam

    OK, so nobody but Swedish people seem to eat black currant jam, but the fact that it is available at the grocery store near my house compels me to include it on this list. Well, that and the fact that it has the highest mold threshold of any product on the FDA’s list. The agency won’t require any action to be taken for mold counts under 75% of the product, meaning that up to a third of the berries being “jammed” can still be moldy and make it onto your (or your Swedish neighbor’s) breakfast table. Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
  • Asparagus

    Like many products that originate in the vast (and insect-breeding) agricultural parts of the country, asparagus occasionally gets contaminated by bugs. It may not hurt to check for beetle eggs (or egg sacs) the next time you go to steam a batch of the delicious veggies. The FDA’s action threshold for canned or frozen asparagus kicks in when 10% of spears are found to be infested with six or more attached asparagus beetle eggs and/or egg sacs, or when it contains an average of 40 or more thrips per 100 grams. If those thrips are in pieces, the FDA sets an upper limit of permissible insect content at an average aggregate length of 7 mm per 100 grams of asparagus. Yum. Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
    Canned Sweet Corn
  • Canned Sweet Corn

    Corn in the field is notoriously difficult to keep free of pests and disease, and now we know that corn in the can faces the same problems. Corn ear worms and corn borers appear to be the most common offenders, and are subject to FDA regulation. The agency will allow no more than two 3 mm or longer larvae, cast skins or skin fragments of corn ear worms or corn borers in canned sweet corn. When the aggregate length of such larvae, cast skins, larval or cast skin fragments exceeds 12 mm in 24 pounds of corn, expect the feds to come knocking on the cannery door. Now we know why Green Giant needs a Jolly Green Giant to keep its corn clean. Photo Credit: Greg Emerson
    Sesame Seeds
  • Sesame Seeds

    For whatever reason, sesame seeds are subject to four different contaminant limits set by the FDA. And none of them are pretty. The agency will take action when:
    • An average of 5% or more seeds are insect-infested or damaged.
    • An average of 5% or more seeds are decomposed.
    • There is an average of 5 mg or more of mammalian excreta per pound.
    • An average of 0.5% of the product is “foreign matter,” which the FDA says includes “objectionable matter such as sticks, stones, burlap bagging, cigarette butts, etc. Also includes the valueless parts of the raw plant material, such as stems.”
    Does anyone else find it disturbing that the agency mentions cigarette butts explicitly? Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski
    Frozen Broccoli
  • Frozen Broccoli

    Remember when George H. W. Bush caused a minor uproar among American farmers when he said he didn’t like broccoli? Maybe he could have avoided some of the blowback by reminding the country that the FDA allows up to an average of 60 or more aphids, thrips or mites per 100 grams of the vegetable. I wouldn’t want to eat that many insects, and I certainly wouldn’t want the president to, either. Photo Credit: Sam Fraser-Smith
    More Food News
  • More Food News

    While the FDA does its best to maintain standards of safety for every food product out there, whether on this list or not, occasional recalls are unavoidable. See MainStreet’s Food Recall Pyramid for details on recent recalls and why the problem is getting worse. Also, if the comments section below doesn't satisfy your appetite (as if you had one after reading all that) for feedback, join the MainStreet team and other readers on our lively Facebook page, where we will definitely be discussing our thoughts on the FDA's permissible contamination levels. Click here to add us! Photo Credit: MainStreet.com
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