Food Contamination

By Hunter, Beatrice Trum | Consumers' Research Magazine, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Food Contamination


Hunter, Beatrice Trum, Consumers' Research Magazine


"Foreign matter is an unavoidable consequence of growing, harvesting, and processing food products," according to Emil Corwin, information officer at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency determines at what levels extraneous matters in foods are considered safe and acceptable. Substances found include: insect larvae or insect parts, rodent filth and excreta, parasites, hulls, pits, grit, mildew, and other unwanted matter. Official levels are established and published to serve as guidelines for food processors, and are known as Defect Action Levels (DALs).

DALs are established after numerous testing processes, with safety and human health considerations being prime factors. Any defects must be low enough so that they are not hazardous. If a level exceeds the DAL, the food product is subject to seizure. Numerous food products are covered by DAL, such as cocoa beans, chocolate, cornmeal, dates, mushrooms, paprika, peanut butter, and tomato puree.

More than a single class of possible defects may apply to specific food products. For example, cocoa beans may not have mold, insect infestation, or insect damage in excess of 4% of the beans, by count. The total of moldy, plus insect-infested beans are subject to action if the level exceeds 6%. If mammalian excreta are found in the beans, the product is subject to action if the contamination reaches 10 milligrams per pound, or more.

Similarly, the allowance for a one-pound box of macaroni is up to nine rodent hair fragments; a pound of frozen broccoli, up to 276 aphids; apple butter, up to five whole insects for every 3.5 ounces of food. Action levels have been established for a host of other extraneous matter, including maggots in canned or dried mushrooms; mold and insect or rodent filth in ground paprika; insect or rodent filth and grit in peanut butter; and drosophila fly eggs or maggots in tomato puree.

Corwin reported that "the alternative to DALs would be to insist on increased use of chemical substances to control insects, rodents, and other natural contaminants." This alternative is unacceptable, according to Corwin, because of "the potential hazards from residues of these chemicals, as opposed to the aesthetically unpleasant, but harmless, natural and unavoidable defects."

Radiation of foods has been suggested as one means to kill viable insects and larvae in food products. However, the technique does not remove extraneous matter.

Grain storers had attempted to use diatomaceous earth, or beneficial predatory or parasitic insects to control infestations. These substances can be removed easily during grain cleaning. Formerly, the FDA viewed this procedure as adulteration. Recently, the FDA has reversed this policy, and now permits the use of beneficial insects as alternatives to toxic fumigants and chemical sprays commonly used to kill insect pests in stored grain. …

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