Sorry to gross you out here, but it used to be possible that youd open a box of pancake mix, or a bag of flour or instant potatoes that had been sitting around a couple of months and find... weevils!
Those are beetle larvae for those of you who flunked biology.
Then the food industry started irradiating all of the above in the 1980s. This involves zapping food with a burst of high-energy radiation. It not only killed the critters and bug eggs that hatched in these products, but did away with a lot of bacteria and micro-organisms that make people sick. It also served as a preservative -- doubling the shelf life of strawberries, for instance.
I once interviewed a scientist at Oakland University who ate a piece of steak that had been sitting on a shelf for two years without refrigeration. The steak had been irradiated and sealed in a plastic bag. Since all of its bacteria had been killed, it was still safe to eat two years after being zapped.
By 1990, irradiation had been approved by more than 30 countries. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved the procedure for pork, turkey, chicken and fish to kill dangerous bacteria, including Salmonella.
But initially, people flipped. There were concerns that irradiated food would be radioactive, since the words sound the same. But this is not true: irradiated food is no more radioactive than your teeth are after an X-ray.
Others feared that irradiation would destroy the life force or soul of their food -- possibly the same crowd that believes a diagnostic MRI exam will wreck your aura. But gradually the fears melted away, and most of us probably dont have a clue that were eating irradiated Cheerios or whatever today.
But food paranoia hasnt gone away: currently, an outfit called the Organic Consumers Association is up in arms over a plan to irradiate lettuce and spinach. They point to studies which claim that irradiation depletes food of vitamins, enzymes and medicinal nutrients.
There are even conspiracy theorists who claim that this summers tomato panic was engineered by the FDA and the food-nuking industry in a bid to mandate the irradiation of all vegetables.
Actually, it does make you wonder -- even if there was no such conspiracy, someone at the FDA really screwed up on this food scare.
In June, tens of millions of dollars worth of tomatoes were destroyed because the FDA claimed they were the source of an outbreak of a rare form of bacteria called Salmonella Saintpaul.
Salmonella Saintpaul presents itself as diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps within 12-72 hours of infection, according to the CDC. Kind of like a bad enchilada.
My wife asked me the other day why we hadnt made much fresh salsa this summer: now I remember -- it was because there werent any Roma tomatoes available.
But then -- whoops! -- it turned out that tomatoes were the innocent victims of character assassination, and some jalapeno peppers from Mexico were the real culprits. Ay, yi, yi...
By late August, the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 1,442 people had been infected with the bug in 43 states.
So, problem solved with those pesky peppers? Not so fast -- some critics smell a rat.
Is there no vegetable safe from destruction by the FDA? wrote organic food activist Mike Adams in the July issue of a publication called the Natural News.
Adams and other organic food folks claim that tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro and other veggie suspects dont harbor Salmonella.
Salmonella only festers in factory-farmed animals, folks, and that means the real source of contamination is no doubt some animal factory upstream from the vegetable processing centers, Adams writes. So why isnt the FDA going after the animal factories that likely caused this whole fiasco? Because making Americans scared of their vegetables is a great way to advance the FDAs food irradiation agenda which would destroy virtually all the medicinal phytonutrients in plants.
Recently, the FDA lifted its warning on eating jalapeno and serrano peppers, since these bad boys are no longer in circulation in the U.S. But the controversy over irradiation continues and it makes you wonder, whos next?
I hear that cauliflower has left the country with no forwarding address, and broccoli is shaking in its boots. Green beans are so nervous and depressed that theyve started taking Prozac. Meanwhile, tomatoes are considering a defamation of character suit, while hot chili peppers still havent lived down the shame.