When a school lunch company took moldy applesauce and repackaged it into fruit cups for school lunches in October, it drew only a sharp warning from the Food and Drug Administration, according to an MSNBC report Monday.
The fact that the FDA failed to take any stronger action is not the most troublesome part of the case. After investigating when a re-inspection of the offending Snokist Growers of Yakima, Wash. would occur, the reporter learned from both industry and government officials that "reworking" bad food is business as usual in America.
Turning tainted or even contaminated food into "edible" and profitable stuff is so common in the United States that virtually all producers do it.
Everyone knows about the revolving door that operates between K Street in Washington, where the corporate lobbyists are headquartered, and the halls of Congress. No one was surprised when they learned this weekend that Newt Gingrich earned $100 million by exploiting his political connections in corporate boardrooms.
Much less known, however, is the revolving door between FDA headquarters and the board rooms of corporate food producers.
"Any food can be reconditioned," Jay Cole told the MSNBC reporter. Cole, a former federal inspector, is now senior consultant with the FDA Group, a firm that helps big food companies comply with government regulators.
The "reworking" of food involves a number of surprising methods.
Who knew, for example, that chocolate ice cream is one of the best places to hide food production "mistakes?"
When companies make mistakes mixing other flavors they frequently dump the bad batches into the chocolate batches. The strong chocolate flavor disguises the blueberry flavoring or whatever else was produced by mistake. It is justified, food company spokespeople say, because no one is getting anything dangerous in his or her package of "chocolate" ice cream.
The food industry people also defend "reworking" of food that involves hiding things that it says are merely "unappetizing." This type of "reworking" involves everything from sifting of insect parts out of cocoa beans to blasting live insects with radiation while the bugs are still crawling around on dates, figs and other foods.
If defending practices like those are not bothersome enough, try this on for size:
Salmonella was detected last year in massive amounts of hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), a flavor "enhancer" used in gravy mix, dairy products, spices, snack foods and almost all canned soups.
Salmonella infection typically causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever in six to 72 hours of eating contaminated food. Symptoms also include chills, headache, nausea and vomiting.
While 177 HVP products turned out by the offending Basic Food Flavors Inc. of Las Vegas were recalled, the FDA allowed the company to "recondition" the salmonella-tainted products by heat-treating the foods. The foods were then redistributed and sold.
In just the last month, consumer advocates were happy when the FDA issued new regulations banning seven different types of salmonella from various beef products. They called the tougher regulations good news, much better than any they had gotten when the Bush administration controlled the FDA.
But they are hoping that the FDA will become stricter not just on regulations, but on policies and practices that can lead to food safety problems for consumers.
Some FDA officials still admit that they allow certain levels of contaminants to remain in food because a zero tolerance standard would be impossible to meet.
William Corell, the FDA's director of compliance, says the practice of "reconditioning" food is allowed because it "can avoid waste and expense. Some things can be adulterated and fixed, and you're not throwing out food that would otherwise be OK."
Almost incredibly, according to the MSNBC reports, a review of official FDA standards shows that the government allows an average of 225 insect fragments or four rodent hairs per eight ounces of pasta products.
An average of 20 or more maggots of any size is permitted per 3.5 ounces of drained canned mushrooms, or per half-ounce of dried mushrooms. When it comes to mold, an average count of 15 percent is allowed for cranberry sauce.
Official regulations in Germany, France and Scandinavian countries allow no levels of these contaminants. They note that allowing any levels opens the way for food producers to move in the direction of combining bad and good products to lower the overall content of contaminants.
The FDA says it does not allow such "mixing," where an apple juice maker, for example, could, in order to end up with an acceptable product, mix batches with a high mold count with those that have a low count.
"If food is adulterated in an unacceptable way," said FDA compliance director Corell, "reconditioning won't fix it. You can't cook the poop out of it."
Photo: keepps (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)