An Icky Idea

To the Editors:

Mr. Levy (“The Maggots in Your Mushrooms” 2/13/2009) is dangerously naive to believe that it’s possible to produce food with zero contaminants. I challenge him to grow, store, and process a years worth of any food he eats and show that none of it contained “icky” insects. Then, if successful, to do so for the general population. Insect contamination is unavoidable if our foods are to have any connection with the natural world (something I hope he would not advocate against).

The problem in this most recent food scare is not the insect parts, but that they carried salmonella. The FDA does not overlook salmonella contamination, nor should it. But to link their tolerance for non-hazardous contaminants directly to hazardous contaminant appears to advocate for a food supply that does not, cannot, and should not exist if we want to continue to be able to eat real food.

–Eric Rector

The Times’ letter policy limits letters to 150 words (barely made it), but there is much more to say about this topic, especially about why I think it’s so dangerous.

  • Peanut butter butter can be made with zero rodent or insect bits and still be deadly if contaminated with aflatoxin that is generated by improper storage of “pure” peanuts (or other grains).
  • Many foods we regularly (and enthusiastically) consume are contaminated with “icky” bits of other organisms, for example: cheese, beer, wine, pickles, bread, cured meats, and anything else that is produces using a fermentation phase.
  • Anyone who has pulled a carrot out of the dirt knows that there is NO WAY to insure that that carrot does not contain a little insect among it before it is processed and served as food.
  • People who don’t grow and or process food should NOT legislate how food is made. If most people who love to eat at fancy restaurants knew that in general the more you pay for prepared food, the more it is handled — literally with hands, often bare hands — they would never go to a non-fastfood restaurant again. What you pay for at expensive restaurants is mostly the exponentially greater labor it takes to make interesting meals, and most of that labor translates to many hands touching your food before it reaches your table. However, good restaurants employ good practices in food safety to make sure you won’t be poisoned as a result. What’s important isn’t how many hands touch your food, but how clean they are when they touch that food.
  • People who insist that food be 100% clean and 100% safe do not want to eat real food. Period.
  • I make and sell products that are ready to eat out of the package. In some cases the food I make has never been heated above 90 degrees F over several months. As a state licensed food producer, I must renew my licenses annually, each contingent on inspection. My dairy processor license provides for two inspections a year in addition to monthly testing of my products for coliform contamination. Coliform itself is not dangerous (we ingest coliform from our environments every day with and without food), but its presence indicates a potential contamination with undesirable bacteria during processing, thus that batch and the processing practice bears further examination. At this point the regulators must get involved.

    However, my products are not tested for the presence of insect bits. If my products had insect bits that did not cause a positive coliform test, then I am allowed to sell those. But if those insect bits contributed to a positive coliform count, then regulatory action is warranted. To those who would object to the possibility of eating micrograms of insects that are NON-harmful, then they should not eat any fruit or vegetable, period. And probably not eat any processed food. Period.

  • In NO WAY do I advocate for a world of dirty food. Instead I think food processors should be smart about how they can avoid the most serious health risks to our food supply at the same time that we are able to offer the public a wide range of food options. To those who seek zero risk of natural contaminants in their food supply, we offer Twinkies, Tang, and cans of Ensure. To those who seek flavor, I advocate for cheese, meat, and vegetable products from intelligently regulated food processors. For the record, the FDA is not an intelligent regulator in my opinion — yet. I, and others, are working on correcting that, but Mr. Levy appears to be working on the opposite outcome. Let me know where you stand.

2 thoughts on “An Icky Idea

  1. I ain’t worried. For one, I’ve managed to live to my age and maintain good health. For two — especially in these times — people are competing for my $$$ big time, they don’t want me to find that proverbial fly in my soup or go home and get sick. For three — everything a purveyor of food does in this internet age is oh so PUBLIC. The 1300 restaurant that I wrote about on eats is pretty new and it already has over 300 “reviews” on Yelp.
    Any kind of written legalese or governmentese document is going to read really perverse and any columnist without a good idea can build a column around the ikky parts.
    I see Mr. Levy is a professor of creative writing. Probably frustrated and hates his job.

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  2. US food is already intelligently regulated (for the most part). That’s why there are so many regulations stipulating how many insect parts are allowed per kilogram (or what have you) of various foodstuffs. The reason is that it’s virtually impossible to keep them out, especially out of stuff like flour and other processed grain products. Icky but true. So get over it, Levy dude. (And btw, how does a writing teacher get away with concluding “… we don’t know what we’re putting in our mouths,” after going over in detail exactly what the gov’t standards are for what we put in our mouths?)

    On the other hand, the area where US food appears to be under-regulated is on E. coli in ground beef and Salmonella in general, as these are the two “bugs” (both bacteria) that seem to cause the most serious large-scale food-poisoning outbreaks in the Home of the Brave. I’m sure this hasn’t escaped the FDA’s notice.

    Other that that, it’s all about hair nets.

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