|Photo by Randi Workman, via ksl.com|
Perhaps more compelling than the question "Do we know what is in our food?" is pondering, "Do we want to know?"
My thoughts have thus ranged after a recent TV news story in my neighboring city of a woman reporting she found a snake head in a can of green beans. The woman was working with teenagers in their church kitchen to prepare a meal for senior citizens and noticed the snake head when they lifted beans out of a slow cooker. She threw the beans out and notified the store, which refunded her for the 30 cans she purchased. The manufacture withdrew that particular lot from the marketplace.(Click here to read story.)
The gross-out potential of such a story is high (as Indiana Jones would say, "Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?"), and unsurprisingly people flooded an online comment board with plenty of "Ewws!" and "I'm never eating green beans again!" Others shared stories of their own less-than-appetizing finds inside commercially prepared products -- such as a starling in a can of spinach and a mouse baked in bread.
Er, excuse me while I regroup.
OK, are we back?
Such anecdotes can make one swear off ever buying processed food again! Eww, eww, eww! Other commenters were nonplussed and pointed out that it's unrealistic to expect a completely clean food supply. After all, these normal-Joe commenters said, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows certain levels of insects in the food we buy.
Sure enough, the FDA's Defect Level Handbook lists acceptable levels of what the organization deems "natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans." It's an interesting read, although please don't do so over lunch! And while I'm always on the prowl for good Scrabble words, I could have gone my entire life without learning a new one from this document: excreta.
Here's a sample for a pantry staple, peanut butter. Measurements in the right box indicate maximum acceptable level.
The FDA handbook glossary defines aesthetic as "offensive to the senses." No kidding.
All of this certainly motivates me to grow as much of my own food as I can. Yet, interestingly, I believe my experience raising food tempers my response and broadens my perspective. I know that snails slobber on tomatoes. I know that grasshoppers and birds -- and all sorts of things -- poop in the garden. I wash produce, cut out blemishes and move on. I've bottled apricots, handling each one individually, and still not seen the tiny white worm until it ended up floating in my sealed jar. (That time, as my first foray bottling, I threw the jar contents out, but now I would just pick out the worm.) I've pulled a daddy-long-legs off my dinner salad, no big deal. I know certain things are unavoidable even with food that I closely inspect and handle every step of the way.
Back to the story of the snake head, consider that those people didn't notice it right away either, when they opened the can. The woman found it later when pulling the beans out of the pot.
I don't like dwelling too much on my food and think these stories of animals in products are the memorable, icky exception to the rule. In the name of not starving I choose to give the benefit of the doubt that growers, processors and regulators are doing the best they can. In the end I appreciate these thoughts from people who chimed in on the snake-in-a-can story: