Over the past few years, word has gotten around that peanut butter, that staple of childhood, is legally allowed to contain insect fragments and rodent hairs (and if you weren’t aware of that, we apologize for being the bearer of bad news). Unfortunately, that’s not even close to the worst “legal” contamination allowed in what we eat. The FDA has set guidelines on the “food defect action levels” for hundreds of foods, and you’d be shocked by what the federal government allows in these products.
First published in 1995, the Defect Levels Handbook strictly defines the “levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards to humans.” And by “defects,” they don’t mean the amount of bruising on apples. They mean the amount of really nasty stuff, like maggots, mold, and, yes, rodent poop, that they deem safe to consume. And while they reiterate multiple times in the handbook that eating the allowed amounts of this stuff won’t cause any health problems, it’s still pretty disgusting to think about.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that just because it’s the maximum allowed amount, that doesn’t mean that there are, for example, eight insect fragments in every gram of ground cinnamon.
“It is incorrect to assume that because the FDA has an established defect action level for a food commodity, the food manufacturer need only stay just below that level,” the handbook notes. “The defect levels do not represent an average of the defects that occur in any of the products — the averages are actually much lower.” While that’s good news, it’s unsettling to know what food manufacturers are able to get away with, and you can bet that some do.
So read on to learn about 13 nasty things that the FDA allows in your food, a sampling of what foods they’re allowed in, and how much of it is allowed (most levels are given per 100 grams, so as a benchmark, one jar of peanut butter contains about 500 grams). You can peruse the official handbook here, but you might not want to dwell on it too much; sometimes, ignorance really is bliss.
Bacteria only shows up once on the list, thankfully, under “Eggs and Other Egg Products, Frozen.” If, when examined under a microscope, there are more than a whopping 5 million bacteria per gram, the product can’t be sold.
Copepods and Pus Pockets
According to the handbook, 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.” Yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds, and three out of every 100 red fish and ocean perch examined are allowed to contain “one or more copepods accompanied by pus pockets.”