July 15, 2024

Flour and Other Contaminated Foods: Food Defect Action Levels

The recall of Gold Medal flour for possible E. coli O121 contamination and the outbreak that is associated with those products reminded me of my food safety classes at the University of Minnesota. The CDC stated tonight that “collaborative investigative efforts indicate that flour produced at the General Mills facility in Kansas City, Missouri is a likely source of this outbreak.”

While E. coli bacteria in flour may seem unlikely to many, it does happen. And foods do contain “icky” ingredients in addition to bacteria. Most people don’t know that there are allowable levels of “unavoidable defects” in food and that the FDA has set these levels to below what would make an average person ill. Those “defects” include the presence of insect filth, maggots, insect eggs, mold, grit, rust, and rodent filth, including rodent hair and poop, and mammalian feces.

The numbers are not an average of the defects in the food you buy; they are the limits at which the government considers a food “adulterated.” The average number of defects in our food is much lower than the numbers below indicate. But they’re in there!

Moldy strawberries

These rules are set because, according to the FDA, it is “it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.” The exception to this rule includes products that are harmful to people whether or not they exceed the action levels, such as enough bacteria in a product to make someone sick.

Wheat flour is allowed an average of 32 or more insect-damaged kernels per 100 grams. And an average of 9 mg or or more rodent excreta pellets and/or pellet fragments per kilogram are allowed in that product.

Other products have different levels of acceptable “defects.” Cocoa beans can be 4% moldy. Up to 60% of frozen berries can be moldy, and have an average of 4 larvae or 10 insects per 500 grams. Brussels sprouts can include 30 or more aphids for every 100 grams. One hundred grams of canned mushrooms can include more than 20 maggots. More than 10 milligrams of mammalian excreta is allowed in every pound of cocoa beans. And in every 100 grams of ground cinnamon, there can be 22 rodent hairs.

This information is not an indictment of the food industry, or assigning blame to anyone about these outbreaks. It is simply a timely reminder to practice good food safety habits in the kitchen at all times. The amount of these insect parts and poop in your food should not make you sick, but no food is going to be 100% safe 100% of the time. And you can’t trust that big corporations are looking out for your best interests. The home cook is really the last line of defense when it comes to protecting your family against foodborne illness.

Follow food safety rules and exercise common sense. Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat or poultry, raw milk, or raw flour. Cook these products to 160°F as tested by a meat thermometer to make sure they are as safe as they can be. Avoid cross-contamination whenever you can. Don’t store meat in the fridge on a shelf above foods that will be eaten uncooked. Use a separate cutting board for raw meats and poultry and clean it throughly with soap and water and even a mild bleach solution. And wash your hands well with soap and water before, during, and after food preparation. Don’t prepare food for anyone else if you are sick, especially with a diarrheal illness.

If you have a person in your household who falls into a “high risk” group, be especially vigilant about food safety. With a little effort, you can keep yourself and your family well, even if there is some rodent hair in the cinnamon.

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