Deep-fried Cockroaches, Scorpian Vodka and crunchy Crickets are sold as packaged food
The information I am going to share with you may be unnerving. I am not sure how many of you will be able to digest this.
Realising that agricultural scientists have failed to make any breakthrough in food production, and expecting world to face food crisis in the days to come, some scientists (at the behest of the industry) have begun to see insects as a possible source of protein.
Don't get shocked! What you probably don't know is that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already allowed insects to be an essential component of some of the processed foods. I too was caught unaware when I learnt that FDA has allowed up to 75 pieces of insects in 55 mm of hot chocolate and a maximum of 60 aphids in a portion of frozen broccoli. I can hear you say, Yuck!
Now if you want to know how many rodent hairs and insect parts are in your food, read this list approved by the FDA (see box). Accordingly, a typical food contains about 10 per cent of insect parts approved, but some may contain as much as 40 per cent.
How many insect parts and rodent hairs are allowed in your food?
More than you think ... and maybe than you want to know!
How about a little rat hair with your peanut butter? A fly head with your macaroni and cheese? Though it may sound disgusting, these things and other gross filth the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calls "natural contaminants" are indeed allowed and present in your food.
In fact, so common are these contaminants that the FDA has published a booklet detailing the so-called "Food Defect Action Levels," which were needed, according to the FDA, " ... because it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.
Gross but true: A certain number of rodent hairs are allowed in the food you eat. (A whole mouse, however, is not.)
"Surely, anyone who's ever collected lettuce from a home garden, picked apples right from the tree or strawberries right from the vine has gotten the unpleasant surprise of finding a spider, worm or other "natural contaminant" in their harvest. But in these cases, we're more accepting, or at least, more expecting, of finding an unwanted guest, and we're free to inspect each item for ourselves.
But what about when it comes to processed foods? Is there really any way to know how many insect parts have been ground right up with the rest of the ingredients? Probably not.
Think insect parts and rodent hairs are more of a rarity? Think again. An Ohio University fact sheet estimates that we eat one to two pounds of insects each year, and without knowing it.
This is Gross, but is it Dangerous?
"They're actually pretty healthy," says Dr. Philip Nixon, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, in regard to insects, "If we were more willing to accept certain defect levels such as insects and insect parts, growers could reduce pesticide usage. Some of the spraying that goes on is directly related to the aesthetics of our food."
However, there may be one health area that's been overlooked. According to Judy Tidwell, an economic service specialist in the Southeast United States who has struggled with allergies, trace amounts of insect parts that have been ground into food items ranging from strawberry jam to spaghetti sauce can affect people with allergies and asthma."
We throw away the products that we see are infested. Just think how many we consume because we didn't notice they were infested. Ingesting insect material may cause stomach disorders, as well as allergic reactions," she says.
How Many Rodent Hairs and Insect Parts Are In ...
Here is a very brief sampling of the FDA's Food Defect Action Level list. They begin investigation when foods reach the action level they've set. According to the FDA, typical foods contain about 10 percent of the action level, but others say they contain more like 40 percent.
CHOCOLATE AND CHOCOLATE LIQUOR
- Insect filth: Average is 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams when 6 100-gram subsamples are examined OR any 1 subsample contains 90 or more insect fragments
- Rodent filth: Average is 1 or more rodent hairs per 100 grams in 6 100-gram subsamples examined OR any 1 subsample contains 3 or more rodent hairs
The FDA's action level for peanut butter is 30 or more insect fragments or one or more rodent hairs per 100 grams.
CITRUS FRUIT JUICES, CANNED
- Insects and insect eggs: 5 or more Drosophila and other fly eggs per 250 ml or 1 or more maggots per 250 ml
RED FISH AND OCEAN PERCH
- Parasites: 3% of the fillets examined contain 1 or more parasites accompanied by pus pockets
MACARONI AND NOODLE PRODUCTS
- Insect filth: Average of 225 insect fragments or more per 225 grams in 6 or more subsamples
- Rodent filth: Average of 4.5 rodent hairs or more per 225 grams in 6 or more subsamples
- Insect filth: Average of 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams
- Rodent filth: Average of 1 or more rodent hairs per 100 grams
- Rodent filth: 1 or more rodent excreta pellets are found in 1 or more subsamples, and 1 or more rodent hairs are found in 2 or more other subsamples OR 2 or more rodent hairs per pound and rodent hair is found in 50% or more of the subsamples OR 20 or more gnawed grains per pound and rodent hair is found in 50% or more of the subsamples
- Insect filth: Average of 75 or more insect fragments per 50 grams
- Rodent filth: Average of 1 or more rodent hairs per 50 grams
Can these things be avoided? To avoid all unsavory food components, it seems, would be to stop eating all together. And perhaps we're just being too squeamish. After all, as Dr. Manfred Kroger, a professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University, says, "Let's face it, much of our food comes from nature, and nature is not perfect."
How disgusting, you would say. More so when we think that FDA's approval ensures food is safe. I wonder what would be the situation in a developing country like India. Will the newly formed Food Safety and Standards Authority look into this?
An article 'Deep-fried locust, anyone? Insect may be the answer to our looming food crisis' in The Guardian (Aug 19, 2009) first opened my eyes to the new 'sunrise' industry.
The article says: "In south-east Asia, insects are an important part of the daily diet for millions of people. Crickets, cockroaches and other bugs and grubs are sold across the region by roadside vendors and in smart restaurants. They are harvested commercially and by home producers, providing vital income for struggling farmers…."
Insect food stalls
Well, I was aware of this. Often in my travels through Southeast Asia I have seen insects being sold by roadside vendors. But what I didn't know for sure was that 'Entomophagy (insect eating) is a growing industry with more than 1,400 insect species being gobbled in 90 countries'.
The article further elaborates: "Insects are plentiful, multiply and grow to adulthood rapidly and require little food to sustain them. They are the perfect source of protein. As countries in the west and developing world wake up to the looming threat of food shortages, it's time that governments seriously considered an alternative source of protein. Could insects provide food security for the coming centuries?...
Researchers, governments and international agencies such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) need to look seriously at insect harvest and production to meet the world's food needs both in the poor world and the rich west. This doesn't necessarily mean a cockroach burger with grub fries, but it could mean using insect protein to replace soya bean protein in packaged foods."
Surely, it is time to get worried. The FAO says there are 1462 recorded species of edible insects. I did a quick search and found some interesting details. One of the sunrise industries is called Sunrise Land Shrimp (SLS), founded in March 2005. David Gracer describes some of the new projects his company is undertaking. And I reproduce portions from one of his letters to a web portal:
"I have started plans with Mr. Mark Rehder, an organic farm in Montana who reports that grasshopper harvests of 100 pounds per hour are possible. While gathering this largesse is intriguing, the prospect of cultivation makes even more sense. We are currently seeking capital and other resources that would allow us to best make use of a huge amount of grasshoppers.
Grasshoppers (and orthopterans in general) are probably the single most utilized food-insect worldwide. There is a particularly robust tradition of this practice in Pre-Columbian Mexican cuisine, and grasshoppers are enthusiastically consumed in Mexico to this day. The owner of a Mexican restaurant in Providence, RI, has told me that if I can secure a reliable supply of grasshoppers, he would put them on the menu. This is an exciting prospect, and might attract the attention of that specific restaurant industry. I am also interested in processing the grasshoppers into insect flour for high-protein baked goods. It could possibly be a model for a new paradigm in locust-related famine response.
Human consumption itself is hardly the only option. Other markets include: pet and zoo animal; fish, poultry, and possibly hog feed, and even fish bait and fertilizer."
Oh dear! Where are we heading towards!! The human civilisation seems to be fast returning to square one. We probably are going back to the jungle lifestyle once again and that too in the name of modernity and business opportunities.
To know more about economic aspects of insects as food, read this research paper: Insects as human food http://www.food-insects.com/Insects as Human Food.htm
and The Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2009/aug/19/insects-food-crisis
Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. After completing M.Sc. in Plant Breeding and Genetics, he started his career as a journalist. A decade later, he quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning hunger and food security, biodiversity, genetic engineering and IPRs. He writes and speaks extensively on these issues and has written more than 10,000 articles till date.