Maggots, Mushrooms and Malarky

Last week, two different people sent me a link to this New York Times Op-Ed piece: “The Maggots in Your Mushrooms”.

With a title like that, of course I had to read the thing, but after I did, I ended up shrugging my shoulders and saying, “So what?”

Which is definitely not the reaction that a writer wants when he or she writes an opinion piece. Editorial writing by its nature wants to inspire a response, preferably a strong one; the last thing the author of an opinion essay wants is for someone to finish reading it and say, “So, uh, dude–what’s your point?”

Because the point of an opinion essay is to have a point and to drive it home, skillfully, with carefully honed arguments and beautifully constructed spires of logic and reason.

Unfortunately for, E. J. Levy, the author of “The Maggots in Your Mushrooms,” the point of her essay is rather dull, and while it is factually based, her arguments, if you can call them that, are, on the whole, insipid.

What is the point of the essay?

As near as I can tell, Ms. Levy apparently just found out that the FDA allows a certain level of naturally occurring foreign matter in both processed and unprocessed foods, and it disturbed her.

At least I think it disturbed her, but I can’t be certain because she never states an opinion one way or another on what should be done about this policy. She never agrees nor disagrees with the FDA’s acceptance of a certain level of ““insect filth,” “rodent filth” (both hair and excreta pellets), “mold,” “insects,” “mammalian excreta,” “rot,” “insects and larvae” (which is to say, maggots), “insects and mites,” “insects and insect eggs,” “drosophila fly,” “sand and grit,” “parasites,” “mildew” and “foreign matter” (which includes “objectionable” items like “sticks, stones, burlap bagging, cigarette butts, etc.”)” in our food.Instead, Levy merely states facts gleaned directly from the FDA publication, The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of Natural or Unavoidable Defects in Foods That Present No Health Hazards for Humans, without stating her objections to or support for the FDA’s policies regarding these unappetizing yet unavoidable food contaminants.

It is almost as if she is trying to scare her readers, without coming out and taking responsibility for scaring them by simply using the FDA’s own facts against them while at the same time never giving a solution to what I suspect she considers to be problematic, lax rules concerning food purity.

It is damned sloppy writing for an award-winning, nationally acclaimed essayist.

And, as someone who spent much of her childhood on a farm, I have to say that this essay displays the kind of silliness I have come to expect from many city folks who are shocked, yes, shocked, to find out that farmers fertilize their fields with composted cow, pig and chicken manure, and who freak out at the thought that they may find a slug on the underside of a lettuce leaf. You know the kind of folks I mean–the ones who seem to fear dirt and all of the unsavory critters it contains, never realizing that without dirt, aka soil, we would bloody well have nothing to eat.

This sort of attitude irritates the crap out of me. I mean, after I read the essay I was ready to drive off to Missouri and shake some bugs over this lady’s lunch, which is really childish of me, but still–the whole thing just sounds so immature that I couldn’t help but want to respond in kind. It all seemed to come down to, “Oooh, scary–there are bugs in our food–icky-poo! And the evil, nasty FDA knows all about it and does nothing–grody to the max!

And since she starts out her essay referencing the current salmonella in peanut butter fiasco, it isn’t like Levy doesn’t know that there are legitimate concerns to be had regarding the safety of our food supply, and that there are honest-to-God gripes to be leveled at the federal agencies we entrust with overseeing food safety.

But bringing up the fact that there are a certain small number of nearly microscopic bug bits and vermin hairs in our canned goods and some stones in our dried beans which are allowed by the FDA trivializes the seriousness of the salmonella outbreak which has resulted in hundreds becoming ill and quite a few deaths. In heaping scorn upon the FDA for these realistic policies regarding harmless natural contaminants, I think that Levy is missing the point and muddying the water when it comes to the very real issue of foods contaminated by illness-causing pathogens, and is doing nothing to help the FDA do a better job of protecting consumer health.

But that’s just me. I grew up in the country where I was party to growing food in close contact with dirt, poop, insects, field mice, cats, slugs, snails, rocks, sticks and all sorts of other unsavory things.

So, I just don’t get it.

Food comes from dirt, and insects and rodents eat the same food that we do, and so they track dirt onto the food. All of it can’t be removed and it doesn’t hurt us (because really, if it was harmful, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation at all–we’d have all died out long ago from overdoses of bugs, mouse droppings and blowfly maggots), so why freak out and divert attention from real problems with our food supply which can kill us?


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  1. Granted I am a farmer’s granddaughter, but I remember learning this in middle school and having the same reaction–plus a tendency to gleefully announce at the dinner table how many rat hairs were being consumed. 🙂 I totally agree.

    Comment by Laura — February 18, 2009 #

  2. I don’t worry so much about finding a slug in my salad as finding only half of one. 🙂

    Thing is you can’t steam clean every bit of food before it gets to market – there is going to be some bits o’ reality in it.

    Comment by Cindy — February 18, 2009 #

  3. Too right about muddying the water, finding a few bugs in our food really is the least of our worries! I’d much rather get my buggy local lettuce and dunk in a big bowl of water than eat a load of pesticides…

    Comment by Jenny — February 18, 2009 #

  4. I always feel happy to find live bugs in my produce…it means that it’s relatively fresh, and not too covered in poison! (Now, if I had a magic fix to get mealyworms out of my grains, so I stop having a mealyfly infestation in my kitchen, that would be great. Those guys are actually annoying.

    Comment by Emily — February 18, 2009 #

  5. “Allowable” parasites in food worries me the most, assuming there is an allowable level. But I’m glad we actually do deep-freeze sushi-grade fish in the U.S.; sickness from parasides in sushi is much more common in Japan.

    I am childishly squicked by earwigs in artichokes, though, because earwigs just freak me out. Haven’t stopped eating artichokes, though; I just wash them carefully.

    Comment by Mel — February 19, 2009 #

  6. Bah. If she doesn’t want it, more for me, I suppose. I smile a bit when I know that when I slice a morel mushroom in half, little bugs will scatter out, or that my triple washed bag of spinach from the farmer’s market will still inevitably have some form of insect in there anyway. It’s all part of fresh produce, and it’s why we’re told to wash everything we eat, LOL.

    I feel much safer eating my bug-infested stuff than I do eating peanut butter that’s processed at a factory. Go figure.

    Comment by Columbus Foodie — February 19, 2009 #

  7. Hey – we actually agree (for once, usually I find your op ed articles, um, not so agreeable)! Food comes from the ground.[1] That means dirt. Things live in dirt. They’re what makes dirt a medium that can support things that grow. The fact that USans get squicked out means we’ve gotten a tad far from the source. Like my otherwise-esteemable colleague who only eats boneless chicken and doesn’t want to be reminded that it even came from a whole, not to mention that that whole one lived and had to be killed. I really don’t want my kids to think like this, which is why my black-thumbed[2] self will be trying to grow veggies again.

    There’s another aspect that you don’t mention, Barbara. Sensing and measuring technology improves over time. Fifty years ago the FDA could announce a “100% pure” standard for a food. Now it can’t. Not because food is less pure but because we can detect inclusions that we couldn’t detect 50 years ago. The FDA booklet cited says 100% defect free is “impractical.” The better word would be “impossible.”

    And some societies eat maggots, worms, bugs, and grubs as normal food.

    – Harry

    [1] Or hydroponics but that’s a tiny minority of our food.
    [2] I make *great* soil – compost, mulch, etc.

    Comment by Harry — February 19, 2009 #

  8. I completely agree with the general sentiment here: Food grows in dirt, dirt has bugs in it, so a few bugs in your food are nothing to freak out about.

    But still, some of the allowed levels quoted in the article seem like more than just a few bugs to me. Twenty maggots in 100 grams of canned mushrooms? Isn’t that kind of a lot? Is it really so impractical to reduce it below that level? I’m asking because I don’t know.

    Comment by Johanna — February 19, 2009 #

  9. Harry–have you ever read my post, “Meat Comes From Animals, Deal With It Or Eat Vegetables.” It is an opinion piece I think you would agree with, and it happened to win “Best Post” in the 2005 Food Blog Awards.

    Johanna–considering how commercial mushrooms are grown, and what they are grown in and how small maggots are–I suspect that the number is fairly low.

    The thing is, once they are canned, the maggots are rendered harmless–and frankly at the temperature at which canning takes place, they may even be essentially dissolved.

    That said, I don’t eat canned mushrooms–just fresh, so it doesn’t bug me too much.

    Comment by Barbara — February 19, 2009 #

  10. Haha, “grody to the max” cracks me up.

    And I agree with the sentiment here. Although I really did not want to know about earwigs and artichokes… ew. Any other bugs are just more protein, but I cannot deal with earwigs.

    Comment by Alison — February 19, 2009 #

  11. I’m a city girl, myself but I had the same reaction to the article. I didn’t really see the point. It reminded me of my daughter and her friends trying to gross each other out at lunch. Childish at best.

    Comment by Dana — February 19, 2009 #

  12. Another city/suburban kid here who also had the “um… yeah, so?” reaction. My folks had vegetable gardens since before I was born. Plants grow in dirt with compost and manure. Bugs walk on them. Slugs and snails crawl on them. It is NOT A BIG DEAL.

    Salmonella in peanut butter, or spinach, or tomatoes, is a big deal. Melamine in the food supply is a big deal.

    This? Not a big deal.

    Comment by Lexica — February 19, 2009 #

  13. Barbara – thanks, and good point. I don’t eat mushrooms much in any form, so I tend not to think much about them.

    This all reminds me a little bit of some vegan acquaintances of mine who try to make “gross-out” arguments for veganism, by saying that meat rots in your digestive tract (without even trying to argue that meat rots any more than vegetables do), that milk has pus in it (people I’ve challenged on this have admitted that the pus is not bad for you, and although it’s probably bad for the cow to have an udder infection, that’s not the point), or that eggs are in some way similar to human menstrual blood (because…they emerge from similar parts of the body, I guess?) I really wish they’d stop doing that.

    Comment by Johanna — February 19, 2009 #

  14. Chalk another one up to the “Um, and how exactly is this news?” reaction. Next she will be telling us that chicken isn’t magically created in the form of tenders, but actually comes from animals that were once alive.

    Comment by Andrea — February 19, 2009 #

  15. I think that the recent obsession with sanitizing and cleaning and deodorizing and anti-bacterilizing of the world has created the plethora of allergy persistent children and adults we see today.
    When we were kids you played in mud, ate things you picked out of a garden bed, sometimes without *gasp* washing it thoroughly.
    I am often saddened in a class when I tell kids to get their hands in the bowl and mix something, or to smoosh things around they look at me like I have asked them to stick their nose in poop. I ask them if they ever played in the mud or the sand or the dirt and they turn their nose up in disgust and say NO. Never! No mud pies? NO! No dirt tunnels? NO.
    Too sad to contemplate.

    Comment by jo — February 20, 2009 #

  16. Since you linked I reread Meat Comes From Animals, which leads me to two questions:

    1) All the sources agree that halal & kosher killing are hard & take practice. I’ve known this for years. It suddenly occured to me to wonder: what do apprentice halal & kosher butchers practice *on*? I can’t think of an answer that doesn’t involve a period of incompetent, painful killing.

    2) You say in the post that vegetarianism is not sustainable in all areas. Elsewhere you’ve argued – strongly – for eating only locally grown food. By implcation (and maybe explicitly, I don’t remember word for word) you’re saying that locally-grown is always sustainable. I don’t see these views as compatable; please explain.


    Comment by Harry — February 20, 2009 #

  17. I always enjoy your posts, and was driven to give in and post a comment: It’s not dirt and bugs causing Samonella and the like, otherwise there’d have been no current increase as nothing has changed. What has changed was the laws about 2 years ago concerning “Organic” food and the use of sewage as fertilizer. We have known for decades that in the US our immune systems could not handle using human excrement as fertilizer. It’s a common practice in some countries, but they have grown an immunity to it. Just like the “mystery” of Mad Cow (don’t induce cannibalism in livestock, duh) this too should not be such a mystery….

    Comment by AgreementGuy — February 24, 2009 #

  18. Yeah, that unfortunate writer must never eat morels at all.

    Comment by Mary Ann Dimand — February 26, 2009 #

  19. Great article! I laughed while I read it.

    It reminded me of a story about in Texas they came up with a spider perfect for eating weavels and other bugs in grain silos. They could prove the net result was LESS INSECT PARTS. (Less combined insect AND spider parts actually.) The FDA refused to allow it, according to the story. Eww, they said, you can’t put spiders in the silos.

    Comment by Jumper — February 28, 2009 #

  20. I get food poisoning from mushrooms all the time, at least the ones grown in manure, like regular white (field) mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms and other mushrooms that grow on wood rather than manure seem to be just fine, though, they never make me ill and if anything they seem to make me feel better a lot of the time. Shiitake mushroom broth is delicious and full of antioxidants, so are a lot of other mushrooms.

    But those plain white mushrooms? They make me so sick I spend the next day puking my guts out. I know it’s some sort of bacteria or microscopic worms (or maggots) on in mushrooms making me sick and it’s connected to being grown in manure because they are the only type of mushrooms that make me sick.

    Vegetables can be grown with some manure added to the soil if they’re above-ground fruit that never touch the soil because the roots of the plant take in nutrients and prevent transmission of bacteria and nasty microorganisms. White mushrooms are grown directly in manure and they’re the only grocery item that is grown that way. There is nothing else on the market that’s been grown in.. manure.

    For root plants, tubers, and mushrooms etc it’s safer to use compost instead of manure. Manure is great for trees and corn and wheat and tomatoes and other stuff that grows away from the soil.

    So, yeah. Maybe I’m not talking about big fruit fly maggots or mealworms and such but there are tiny barely-viewable-with-the-human eye maggots and bacteria that are definitely a health hazard and can cause serious illness. Maybe the person who sent you the article also has a bad reaction to white mushrooms and was just spreading the word.

    I should also mention.. I have no aversion to eating bugs. I don’t go out of my way to eat them but the occasional mealworm in my flour or pasta really doesn’t bother me and I consider it extra nutrition (though obv. would make sure to use 100% mealworm free ingredients if I were cooking for someone else :D). So I’m not just being a pansy when I say the bacteria and micromaggots on those mushrooms are dangerous. I’m never feeding anything directly grown in manure to my kids. Ever.

    But.. I loooove all other mushrooms. In fact, I’m thinking of growing some reiki and shiitake mushrooms next month. Never tried it before, I’m kinda psyched. 🙂


    Comment by Rosemary — March 15, 2009 #

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