Paging Dr. Frischer: Food defects

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While enjoying a bowl of cereal I noticed something suspicious floating in the bowl. Of course, that was the end of that bowl of cereal; I tossed it down the drain. It was probably nothing, but it got me wondering: what in the world was in there?


Nobody wants to find insect parts, rat hairs, mouse poop or maggots in their food. However, the Food and Drug Administration allows low levels of those unsavory items to be present in our food. In fact, the FDA considers this to be natural and unavoidable.


Most of us have never heard of the FDA Defect Levels Handbook. This is (I hope!) the most disgusting government publication in existence. For more than 100 food items, from allspice to wheat flour, this booklet spells out the maximum allowable levels of “defects” that are permissible before the agency considers the food to be unacceptable. It actually spells out just how much mold, rot, parasites, bugs, and other contaminants are allowed in our food.


The handbook puts it this way: “The FDA set these action levels because it is economically impractical to grow, harvest or process raw products that are totally free of nonhazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”


Given the large amount of food that is produced daily in the United States, it is unrealistic to think that some outside materials won’t make their way into the finished product. When grain is harvested, it is inevitable that there will be a bug in there somewhere. After harvest, when it is being processed at a factory, or being stored, or in transit, there might be a mouse, and therefore…mouse poop. These “defects” exist in the environment where foods come from, and it is just impractical and too expensive to remove every little bit if it does not actually pose a threat to our health.


If it’s at all reassuring, do note that food-processing systems are far cleaner, more effective and more efficient than ever before.


The motivation for setting limits is to utilize this inevitable contamination as an indicator of whether there is something dangerously wrong. One mouse hair in food will not harm us, but many hairs may be evidence of an infestation at the factory. Along with an infestation may be bacteria, viruses, or other harmful microorganisms.


Consider these examples of FDA limits:

  • · A 16-ounce box of pasta may contain no more than nine rodent hairs.

  • · Perhaps there are dark specks in your cornmeal. Maybe they’re just cornmeal, but the FDA’s action levels do allow for up to 13 “fragments” of rodent excreta in a 24-ounce container.

  • · The government permits three maggots in a 28-ounce can of tomatoes.

  • · A 16-ounce jar of peanut butter may contain up to 136 insect fragments and four rodent hairs.

  • · Beer drinkers take note: there is a limit of 2,500 aphids for every 10 grams of hops.

  • · Tiny bugs such as aphids, thrips, or mites may come in from the field with the broccoli. The limit is 60 creatures per 100 grams – or 204 in a 12-ounce bag of frozen broccoli.

  • · 6% of potato chips may contain rot. However, only 5% of prunes can be moldy, decomposed, or insect-infested.

  • · 15 ounces of golden raisins may contain no more than 40 milligrams of sand and grit…as well as 65 fly eggs.

  • · Mushrooms can contain up to 20 maggots per can.

  • · The cranberry sauce accompanying your Thanksgiving turkey may contain an average of 15% mold filaments.


Honestly, after perusing this FDA handbook, I thought twice about ever eating again. These imperfections sound disgusting.


The good news is that the FDA reassures us that these allowable imperfections present no health hazards. Although the FDA has established these acceptable defect levels, and can take action if a food exceeds those levels, the amounts actually found are much lower. In fact, most food companies set their own quality standards at far stricter levels than these FDA limits.


Note that today’s column does not address intrinsically harmful food contaminants such as pesticides, metals or environmental chemicals, but “merely” defects in food quality. Keep this in mind as you consume your next grasshopper leg.


Bon appétit!

Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.