Viral Ideas About Food Filth

New York Times Op-Ed Rediscovers Food Filth Issues

Posted Feb 26, 2009

In my last post, January 5th, I discussed the apparently harmless "filth" that the FDA allows in our food, and went heavy on the disgust imagery. There, and in another article for a law review, I focused on the case of peanut butter. My new book, The Empathy Gap, was released on February 5, and in it I discuss another unwanted ingredient, maggots, in another foodstuff, mushrooms. After setting out the FDA restrictions in my book, I point out that "you would not have guessed that there was any acceptable number of maggots in your mushrooms."

"The Maggots in Your Mushrooms" was the title of a New York Times op-ed that appeared yesterday, February 13th. The author discusses two main foods that FDA regulations apply to: Peanut Butter and Mushrooms. This may be a peculiar coincidence, but it is also welcome evidence that questions about the efficiency of government regulations (like those of the FDA), and the positive role of government in our lives, are gaining a place once again in public conversation. When I first discussed the maggots in the mushrooms and the insect parts in our peanut butter, I used it to illustrate one issue: People happily accept government (in this case FDA) regulation in technical matters outside of their factual wheelhouse. But these examples obviously serve more than one purpose. You don't have to advance the public discussion of the recent salmonella outbreak or assess the reliability of the FDA. The author of the op-ed uses those examples in an analysis of disgust. The author languishes over the administrative tone and indifferent use of charged words like "filth" and "feces" and "rodent hair". The piece mainly describes the unwanted but permissible contents of the regulated foods, for us to gawk at the humorless descriptions of FDA limits.

When I wrote the January 5th entry "Peanut Butter and Paternalism", no one had any idea that the source of the spreading salmonella was peanuts (The CDC turned its attention to peanut butter on January 7th -- see this timeline). It does not appear that the FDA standards were too lax. It appears instead that the company was not compliant. At the moment, none of this speaks badly for the FDA. Now we can follow the enforcement phase.

I promise to stop talking about critters in our comestibles. But with all the foods regulated by the FDA, a New York Times op-ed on insect parts in peanut butter and maggots in mushrooms was a coincidence too delicious to leave unsampled.