Yes, it’s April Fools' Day. But not everyone wants to devote the day to solemn observance of the holiday’s true and timeless meaning. For those non-spiritual persons, I offer this column, celebrating one of the ways our government helps us.
Its inspiration comes from a friend I’ve known since junior high school who is now a lawyer with a high-falutin’ government commission. He pointed the way a week or so ago, and I’ve been researching it since then.
So in honor of this, a holiday so widely observed that now it’s as if every day is April Fools' Day, information that is absolutely true.
I give you a government publication called "Defect Levels Handbook". It is the work of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration.
It describes how badly infested or contaminated foodstuffs must be before they’re ruled unfit for human consumption. “These ‘Food Defect Action Levels’ listed in this booklet are set on this premise – that they pose no inherent hazard to health,” the document says in its introduction.
(It would be good if the various government agencies were to agree on a definition of “health” – for instance, mental health is considered in some regulations, so airlines are required to make space for a person and his emotional support pigmy hippo. But I daresay that things the FDA finds acceptable in its “Defect Levels Handbook”might be detrimental to some people’s emotional stability.)
Here’s an example. You might like asparagus. It’s not everyone’s favorite, but it’s popular. And according to the FDA it is fine for you to eat if it comes with less than “10 percent by count of spears or pieces infested with six or more attached asparagus beetle eggs and/or sacs,” or “40 or more thrips per 100 grams” (about 3 1/2 ounces). Thrips, by the way, are “minute, slender insects with fringed wings and unique asymmetrical mouthparts.”
Perhaps you prefer frozen broccoli, which is OK until it comes with an “[a]verage of 60 or more aphids and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams.” (Do you find the word “average” troubling in this context? I read it to mean that some portions may be literally covered with tiny frozen bugs and spiders, so long as other portions host many fewer vermin.)
The permissible bug population for frozen Brussels sprouts is less, “[a]verage of 30 or more aphids and/or thrips per 100 grams.” If you count on crunchy little bugs in order to achieve your recommended daily allowance of protein, chitin and other yummy insect nutrients, you’ll get twice as many with broccoli as you will with Brussels sprouts.
If you enjoy canned or frozen blackberries or blueberries, you’ll be reassured that the FDA will protect you from these products if the “[a]verage mold count is 60 percent or more.” This means that your berries won’t be more than 59.9 percent moldy. Good to know.
Cherries are a generally wholesome fruit, and the FDA approves them until an “[a]verage of 4 percent or more pieces are rejects due to insects other than maggots.” Maggots apparently get special privileges.
I’ll bet you like chocolate. I do, and I’m relieved to learn that its melt-in-your-mouth goodness contains no more than an average “60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams when six 100-gram subsamples are examined.” It is rejected if “[a]ny one subsample contains three or more rodent hairs.” In addition, cocoa beans are rejected if they come with more than an average of “10 mg or more mammalian excreta per pound.” Yup, that means only a little rat poop is allowed.
If you like the popular cookies stuffed with fig paste, it will reassure you to know that the fig paste contains no more than “13 or more insect heads per 100 grams of fig paste in each of two or more subsamples.”
The booklet has several listings for fish, and I’ll not go into all of them, but here’s an example. Red fish and ocean perch may not be sold if more than “3 percent of the fillets examined contain one or more copepods accompanied by pus pockets.” (Copepods? “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.”)
How about nice, wholesome wheat? It’s good to go if it contains less than an “[a]verage of 32 or more insect-damaged kernels per 100 grams” and an “[a]verage of 9 mg or more rodent excreta pellets and/or pellet fragments per kilogram.” Likewise cornmeal, which is rejected if it meets or exceeds an “[a]verage of one or more whole insects (or equivalent) per 50 grams, 25 or more insect fragments per 25 grams [less than an ounce], one or more rodent hairs per 25 grams, one or more rodent excreta fragment per 50 grams.”
Surely there can be nothing wrong with popcorn, right? Right. Your FDA will reject popcorn when “one or more rodent excreta pellets are found in one or more subsamples, and one or more rodent hairs are found in two or more other subsamples” or “20 or more gnawed grains per pound and rodent hair is found in 50 percent or more of the subsamples.”
The list, as they say, goes on and on. Let me note again that the limits listed above are the upward ones. A product that reaches them is rejected, but anything right up to them is deemed pure – after all, it is the Pure Food and Drug Act that gave us the Food and Drug Administration.
I’ll also note that the FDA is undoubtedly right. Consuming the things above, which the FDA describes as being of “aesthetic” significance, isn’t going to hurt you. But damn.
It’s the time of year when many people begin their diets, so they’ll look better in more revealing summer garments. If you’re among them, the “Defect Levels Handbook”might help you keep hunger at bay. When the pangs strike, replace them with mental calculation of how many thrips, aphids, maggots, parasites, rodent excreta pellets, and pus pockets you may have consumed over a lifetime. It will help affirm your resolve.
Have a safe and sensible April Fools' Day.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.