Before You Die Over Rats at Green Eggs Cafe, Look in Your Kitchen
Philadelphia’s foodies are in a tizzy over video that surfaced this week showing a gaggle of rats enjoying after-hours pizza at the Green Eggs Cafe Midtown in Center City. The video has sparked an outpouring of revulsion on local social media, but I honestly don’t know what all the fuss is about.
Having spent more than a decade in the local restaurant business, I can report that rats in the kitchen (the fuzzy rodents, not the song) are a rarity—at least they used to be. But pests aren’t. Just about every fine-dining establishment I worked in had some kind of pest issue; and restauranteurs and the exterminators they hire are locked in a perpetual battle to keep the creepy crawling things to a minimum and, most importantly, out of sight. Most of the time they succeed. Occasionally they don’t. But if the idea of a mouse anywhere near your food freaks you out, you should probably consider cooking at home.
It turns out that most of the food we get from the grocery store already contains things we’d rather not know about. Ignorance is indeed gastronomical bliss. Unfortunately, I’m about to enlighten you. (Spoiler alert: If you have a weak stomach and want to keep eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, you should stop reading now.)
Under federal regulations, mass-produced foods are allowed to have a certain level of contamination, as long as the contaminants are “non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable.” So what are these non-harmful adulterants? In purely technical terms (that is, the terms favored by the Food and Drug Administration in its Handbook of the Food Defect Action Levels) they’re known as “filth”—and they come in both the insect and mammalian varieties. There’s also mold, grit, bacteria, ash and something the FDA calls “pus pockets.” (More on that later.)
For better or worse, here’s a sampling of some of the things you might find in your food, most of it courtesy of the FDA. With the exception of milk, for the following products to be considered “adulterated” the levels of contamination must exceed the thresholds listed.
Milk: Due to the presence of mastitis in cows—basically infected udders that leak pus and blood—the average teaspoon of milk contains more than one million somatic cells, which, according to Michael Greger of the Humane Society, is the equivalent of about a drop of pus per cold frothy cup (don’t worry, it’s pasteurized).
Flour: An average of 75 or more insect fragments or one or more rodent hairs per 50 grams (about half a cup).
Tomato, pizza sauce: Average of 30 or more Drosophila fly eggs, or 15 or more fly eggs AND one or more maggots per 100 grams (about a cup), or two or more maggots per cup in a minimum of 12 subsamples.
Mushrooms: An average of 20 or more maggots of any size per 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid, or 15 grams of dried mushrooms, an average of 5 or more maggots 2 mm or longer per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid or 15 grams of dried mushrooms, an average of 75 mites per 100 grams drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid or 15 grams of dried mushrooms or an average of more than 10 percent of mushrooms are decomposed.
Cornmeal: An average of one or more whole insects (or equivalent) per 50 grams, an average of 25 or more insect fragments per 25 grams, an average of one or more rodent hairs per 25 grams, or one or more rodent excreta fragment per 50 grams.
Peanut butter: An average of 30 or more insect fragments or one or more rodent hairs per 100 grams (about a cup). Gritty taste and water insoluble inorganic residue is more than 25 mg per 100 grams.
Berries, canned or frozen: Average mold count is 60 percent or more, or an average of four or more larvae or 10 or more whole insects or equivalent per 500 grams.
Figs: An average of 10 percent or more by count are insect-infested and/or moldy and/or dirty fruit or pieces of fruit.
Red Fish and Ocean Perch: An average of 3 percent of the fillets examined contain one or more copepods accompanied by pus pockets. (In case you’re wondering what a copepod is, it looks like this.)
Pasta: An average of 225 insect fragments or more per 225 grams in 6 or more subsamples, or an average of 4.5 rodent hairs or more per 225 grams in 6 or more subsamples.
Chocolate: An average is 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams, or any one subsample contains 90 or more insect fragments or an average of one or more rodent hairs per 100 grams (about the size of a small chocolate bar).
Popcorn: 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 two or more rodent hairs per pound and rodent hair is found in 50 percent or more of the subsamples, or 20 or more gnawed grains per pound and rodent hair is found in 50 percent or more of the subsamples.