Why are there bugs, rat hairs and feces in our supposedly "vegan" food?
Hold onto your gag reflex before reading "The Maggots in Your Mushrooms," an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times which points out that insects, rodent fur, "foreign matter" like cigarette butts, and other barfworthy ingredients are all commonly present in the foods we eat — even though you won’t find them listed on the labels. That's because the USDA doesn’t especially consider these nauseating items health hazards, but rather unavoidable "aesthetic" defects, and has established standards to regulate the amounts of detritus that various foods can legally contain before being deemed unfit for human consumption. For instance, tomato juice can include 10 or more fly eggs per glass, 25 grams of curry powder can have over 100 bug fragments, and up to 2,500 plant lice may be swimming in a bottle of beer. These government-sanctioned criteria leave the average person scarfing down two to three pounds of bug-hair-crap-matter every year.
Yuck, to be sure (even though insects are considered delicacies in some cultures), but the real gross-out factor here for vegans is the fact that even many supposedly vegan foods are not really vegan because they contain parts of dead bugs and other animals (that just happened to get mixed in there during the manufacturing process). While we vegans like to think that our diet is "pure" (in the sense that we don’t eat any creature that crawls, flies or swims), there is certainly no guarantee of this, especially if we purchase packaged foods or patronize restaurants. The good news is that we can avoid most of these unsavory contaminants by preparing fresh produce, grains, beans, etc. at home from scratch.
Meat Is Murder — And Icky!
Notably, the Times piece doesn't even mention the revolting substances found in meat, milk and eggs. Of course, as a vegan, I find the idea of eating animal flesh or secretions to be just as repugnant as ingesting bugs, if not more so — which is why I can continue eating what I do, even knowing what (and who) is actually in it. I figure most meat eaters must rely on a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance just to prevent themselves from being aware that the organisms they’re devouring were once actually living, breathing creatures made up of blood, veins, intestines, and other internal organs that produce things like piss and shit…which, by the way, are far more prevalent in meat, dairy and eggs than plant-based edibles. Food-borne pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli can certainly wind up on tomatoes and spinach, but the primary source of these dangerous bacteria is animal feces.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are around 75 million cases of food-borne illness in the U.S. every year, about 5,000 of which are fatal. Food contaminated with animal feces (whether by direct contact or agricultural runoff) is the number one cause of these infections, and meat is the main agent by which they spread. That is because animal flesh is exposed to fecal matter during every step of the production process — from the crowded factory farm, where animals live in their own filth, to the slaughterhouse kill floor, where the fetid contents of their bowels can spill into the "product" when their stomachs are eviscerated from their still-warm carcasses.
A person infected with even the most miniscule amount of E. coli may, for example, suffer seizures, neurological damage or a stroke — all from eating a little bit of shit. Unfortunately, modern industrial production methods only make the problem more widespread. Hamburger meat, for instance, is processed by the ton in gigantic grinders before being shipped all over the country, meaning that a single fast food burger may contain flesh from dozens or even hundreds of different animals, and a single diseased animal can taint over 16 tons of beef. Yet the E. coli bacteria is so resilient that it can survive freezing and direct temperatures exceeding 150 degrees, so if you do still eat meat (though I’m ethically against it), definitely cook it thoroughly before consuming.
But (you may protest) the meat industry, and government regulatory agencies, are always looking out for our best interests, right? Well, let me tell ya, they have a way of dealing with this disgusting and life-threatening dilemma...but you might not like it. Their solution: irradiate meat products, which disrupts the bacteria’s DNA so they can’t reproduce but doesn’t kill them. In other words, if you eat irradiated meat, you’re still eating shit, even if the massive number of microbes feeding on it can no longer get busy. But then this leads to more shit in your food, because if producers can just blast meat with radiation to make it "safe" (forget palatable), why should they even bother trying to keep fecal matter out of it?
OK, Life Itself is Kinda Gross…
It is not possible to exist without harming or ingesting bugs, as it were, since the vast majority of them are microscopic, and live on and within us by the billions. In fact, scientists claim that our bodies are composed of about ten times as many microbes as human cells. That means that in terms of each person's biomass (i.e., the total volume of living cells in a body), approximately 10% is human, and the other 90% or so is "other" (so to speak). Just think about it: there are about three pounds of bacteria in your digestive tract alone, and many, many more microbes crawling in and around your body at any given moment than there are humans on the Earth.
These single-celled organisms are (evolutionarily speaking) about 3.5 billion years older than humans, and have a symbiotic relationship with every living creature on the planet. As a result, not so surprisingly, they basically control all of our essential biological functions, from maintaining the surface of our skin to breaking down the food we eat. If it weren’t for these tiny, virtually weightless entities, our bodies would literally just fall apart — and yet, without us, they would do just fine.
Which is precisely why the future of medical science may very well depend on a more complete knowledge of these fascinatingly mysterious life forms. David A. Relman, a microbiologist at California’s Stanford University and chief of infectious diseases at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, believes that "A better understanding of the indigenous microbiota of the human body will lead to much more prudent strategies for maintaining and restoring health." This may (or may not) be putting it mildly: in his book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years, futurist and speculative fiction writer Bruce Sterling predicts that microbial medicine will soon become the very foundation of all health care.
...but this shit doesn't just "happen"
When the USDA says that the presence of fecal matter and other contaminants in our food is "unavoidable," what they really mean is that it would cost producers (and therefore consumers) more to ensure that our food is safe and consistent with our cultural standards. OK, so tens of millions of people get sick, and about 5,000 people (mostly children and the elderly) die every year from food-borne pathogens, while fundamentally repugnant stuff is made an inherent part of our food supply: that’s just the cost of doing business…and of making a hefty profit. Sarcastically speaking, we can’t seriously expect the multi-billion dollar food industry to uphold higher quality standards: I mean, they might make less money!
Essentially, contamination of food (whether vegan or otherwise) is not unavoidable: the USDA merely refuses to hold companies accountable for harming their customers. But there are still ways that you can help reduce the number of food-borne pathogens in our food:
- Go vegan: This will lower your own chances of contracting a meat-borne disease while also diminishing the number of animals on factory farms, thereby decreasing the volume of feces produced by livestock (and thus the incidence of food-borne illness).
- Encourage legislators to pass food safety laws: Visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest Web site to see what laws are being considered, then contact your legislators urging them to support those you agree with.