It’s probably a bad idea to scroll through the Food and Drug Administration’s “Defect Levels Handbook” before a meal. The document lists the allowable limits on “defects” in more than 100 foods, highlighting exactly how much rodent poop is allowed in your cocoa beans (up to 10 milligrams per pound), and how many insect heads it’s OK to find in the fig paste in your cookies (up to 13 in every 3.5 ounces). The FDA defines these food defects as “natural and unavoidable,” just part of the normal process of growing and processing food, and says that they present no health hazard as long as they remain below the “action levels” listed. The book includes many fruits and vegetables that are canned, bottled or frozen, but no meat, and no heavily processed foods (such as granola bars or frozen pizza). The natural and unavoidable defects listed by the FDA range from a nuisance (stems of clove plants in your jar of cloves) to skin-crawling (maggots in your tomatoes). But overall, insects in various forms accounted for the majority of the defects the FDA looks for, including whole insects, insect parts, insect eggs and insect damage. For the most part, insects in your food are gross, but won’t really make you sick. Mould is the second-most commonly mentioned defect in the handbook, but unlike insects, mould can be hazardous to your health. Certain types of mould produce compounds called mycotoxins, which can make a person sick. Other icky defects include things that are left behind by our four-legged friends, including rodent hairs and, yes, rodent poop. Reading through the FDA’s handbook can definitely gross out a person, but in the vast majority of cases, that’s probably the worst that will happen. Indeed, of the 179 defects in foods that are listed, 157 are categorised as aesthetic defects. In other words, they’re merely “offensive to the senses.” A small handful may actually be harmful if they exceed the FDA’s limits. For example, besides getting sick from mould, finding an olive pit in a jar of pitted olives can lead to a tooth or mouth injury, and faecal matter can carry bacteria that can cause illness in some cases. Most of the foods in the book are allowed to contain one or two defects, but some are allowed to have three or more, Live Science found, as we combed through the book. Here’s a look at some foods that really stood out to us as having a high ick factor. Bay leaves Many recipes call for adding a bay leaf, but what else are you adding with it? According to the handbook, possibly a bit of mould, insect filth or “mammalian excreta” aka rodent poop. The FDA allows for up to an average of 5 percent of the bay leaves in a sample by weight to be mouldy, and up to 5 percent by weight to be insect-infested. As for the mammalian excreta, the agency allows for up to an average of 1 milligram (mg) per pound, after the leaves have been processed. As unappetising as it may sound, these defects aren’t harmful to your health. As with the majority of the defects included in the handbook, their significance is simply aesthetic. Ground red pepper & ground paprika Those looking to add a bit of spice to a dish may want to know that both ground red pepper and ground paprika can also come with three natural defects: mould, insect fragments and rodent hairs. For both ground red pepper and ground paprika, the maximum amount of mould is an average mould count of 20 percent, according to the FDA. Levels of insect fragments and rodent hairs differ between the two spices, however: The FDA allows for up to an average of 50 insect fragments in 25 grams of ground red pepper, but up to an average of 75 fragments in the same amount of ground paprika. In ground red pepper, up to an average of 6 rodent hairs are allowed per 25 grams; in ground paprika, up to an average of 11 hairs per the same amount. And while the rodent hairs and insect fragments fall into the aesthetic category, mould in this case can be a problem: at higher levels, it may be harmful to human health. Fig paste Though the FDA allows only one defect in fig paste, it is notable for its specificity: insect heads. To us, the designation raises several questions, including where is the rest of the insect? How are only the heads getting in? The handbook notes that up to 13 insect heads are acceptable in every 100 grams of fig paste. The heads may enter at any point: before the figs are harvested, after the figs are harvested and during processing. In this case, the FDA’s definition of an aesthetic defect “offensive to the senses” seems particularly apt. Chocolate & chocolate liquor, cocoa beans and cocoa powder It’s a cruel world: chocolate, cocoa beans and cocoa powder all come with a variety of unwanted additions, including mould, insect fragments, poop and shells. For example, your chocolate can contain up to an average of 60 insect fragments or 1 rodent hair per 100 grams. And you’re not necessarily better off going straight to the source: Cocoa beans may be mouldy, insect-infested or have tiny amounts of mammal poop. Cocoa powder is also susceptible to insect parts and rodent hairs, as well as shells from the cocoa beans from which it is made. Canned and dried mushrooms Mushrooms are particularly icky, we found in our analysis. The unavoidable defects allowed in the canned and dried varieties include maggots, mites and decomposed mushrooms. The FDA allows for up to an average of 20 maggots “of any size” per 100 grams of drained mushrooms, or the same amount in 15 grams of dried mushrooms. The agency also allows up to an average of 75 mites for those same amounts. Outside intruders aren’t the only issue: The FDA also permits up to 10 percent of dried or canned mushrooms to be decomposed. Peanut butter In 100 grams of peanut butter, up to an average of 30 insect fragments or 1 rodent hair is considered acceptable, according to the FDA. Likewise, “grit” is another unavoidable defect when it comes to this nutty spread: The FDA allows up to 25 mg of what they call “gritty taste and water insoluble inorganic residue” per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of peanut butter. Popcorn Popcorn appears to be a rich source for rodent-related defects, including poop, hairs and nibbled grains. The FDA allows up to 1 rodent poop pellet in a subsample of popcorn. But the agency will toss out popcorn if it contains more than 2 rodent hairs per pound and rodent hair is found in 50 percent or more of the subsamples. Good news for rodents, though: They can gnaw on up to 20 grains per pound before the popcorn is deemed unacceptable for human consumption by the FDA. Sesame seeds By this point, the presence of insect damage (up to 5 percent of the seeds), mould (up to 5 percent of the seeds) and animal poop (up to 5 mg per pound) in sesame seeds is probably not surprising. But sesame seeds can also contain a small amount (0.5 percent by weight) of what the FDA simply calls “foreign matter.” According to the FDA, that refers to “objectionable matter such a sticks, stones, burlap bagging, cigarette butts, etc.” Yum!
Live Science, 20 July 2016 ;