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Insects in your food? Don't let it bug you, says Marine Institute instructor



Insect pieces and rodent hair are considered defects — not contaminants, says Gary Harnum

Gary Harnum wasn't surprised recently when he heard about a woman finding an insect in her tea or another woman finding bugs in her pancake mix.

That's because Harnum teaches food safety at the Marine Institute — and he's philosophical about it.

"These things happen. It's unavoidable, really," he said. "These things occur in nature, and it's not economical to remove all of the defects in the food that we consume."

Beyond the yuck factor, though, should a person be worried about finding a relatively large creepy-crawly in a tin of tea

"I wouldn't be worried at all from a food safety point of view," said Harnum.

"Under some circumstances, if it was a gross contamination, like many bugs of different species, then it could indicate that the product was processed under unsanitary conditions. But for the most part, bugs, or insects, are not considered food hazards. They're not going to make you sick, generally."

Bug eggs in the flour

And the bugs in the pancake mix?

"I've seen that before. Not just in pancake mix, but with breadings and batter and flours," he said.

"The eggs are already present in the flour, and when you store that product in an environment which is conducive to the hatching of the eggs, you will get live bugs in your product."

Oh.

Federal laws consider insect pieces, rodent hairs or even rodent feces not contaminants, but defects, explained Harnum.

"They have established levels — for example, for peanut butter, you're permitted to have 30 insect fragments per 100 grams, and one rodent hair per 100 grams, before [the Canadian Food Inspection Agency] or Health Canada will take any action on the producer."

Contaminants are things like mercury, lead, cadmium, and pesticides and herbicides, as well as bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, which pose more of a health risk.

Cook food thoroughly
The safest thing you can do, he said, is cook your food thoroughly, and keep dry products, like flours, dry.

"If the conditions outside are humid, it might be difficult to do that, but I can pretty much guarantee that if you have flour or any of those mixes, flour mixes, then you're going to have eggs in it," he said.

Think about it, said Harnum; hundreds of acres of crops are harvested and dumped into the back of a truck for processing. "You have insects out there, you have insect eggs, you have rodents out there, you have all types of animals, lizards," he said.

"They have processes in place to try to remove what they can, but economically it's not feasible to try to remove all of the non-hazardous materials."

The hygiene theory
Were you ever told as a child that getting a little dirty is good for your immune system? Your mom and dad weren't wrong, said Harnum.

I can pretty much guarantee that if you have flour or any of those mixes, flour mixes, then you're going to have eggs in it.

- Gary Harnum

"A lot of scientific studies seem to point towards that theory, that's called the hygiene theory, that if you're too clean, your immune system becomes weak," he said.

"I'm not recommending people go out and start eating dirt, but … kids that have grown up on farms have less allergies. People that have grown up around animals have less allergies than people that live in an urban centre."