Have you ever wondered what's really lurking in your food?
Last week, we published a CNN story (like Newshub, CNN is a subsidiary of Warner Bros Discovery) that discussed the not-so-secret scaries hiding in some of America's favourite foods. Think animal poop in your coffee beans, or a sprinkling of rodent fur and insect fragments in your peanut butter.
They may not be on the ingredients list, but in the US, an average amount of these "unavoidable defects" are permitted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be present in certain foods. The agency states it is "economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free" of these "non-hazardous, naturally occurring [and] unavoidable" additions, such as traces of animal faeces, fur, insect fragments, or mould.
For example, golden raisins are allowed to contain 35 fruit fly eggs as well as 10 or more whole insects (or their equivalent heads and legs) for every 8 ounces, as per CNN. Meanwhile, coffee beans are allowed by the FDA to have an average of 10mg or more of animal poop per pound, and as much as 4 percent to 6 percent of beans by count are also allowed to be insect-infested or mouldy. Yum!
Naturally, this raised the question - does New Zealand have similar laws in place that permit controlled amounts of 'unavoidable defects' in certain homegrown foods? We went to the Ministry of Primary Industires (MPI) to find out.
Speaking to Newshub, New Zealand Food Safety deputy director-general Vincent Arbuckle noted unlike the US, Aotearoa does not publish a list of permitted "unavoidable defects". Instead, New Zealand's food safety system requires all food for sale in the country to be safe and suitable to eat.
Under the Food Act 2014 section 12 (5)(d), it states food is "unsuitable if it contains a biological or chemical agent, or other substance or thing, that is foreign to the nature of the food and the presence of which would be unexpected and unreasonable in food prepared or packed for sale in accordance with good trade practice".
"To achieve this, food producers and retailers throughout the supply chain must identify food safety and suitability risks and have plans in place to manage them. These plans are routinely verified to ensure consumers can be confident in the food they buy," Arbuckle told Newshub.
Under the Animal Products Act 1999, food sold in New Zealand cannot contain, have attached to it, be enclosed with, or have been in contact with "anything that is offensive" or "whose presence would be unexpected or unusual in a product of that description", Arbuckle noted.
"As part of this, New Zealand has extensive checks of all animal carcasses after slaughter to remove contamination, including faeces, hair and other unwanted foreign matter," he added.
"Operators have requirements set out in their risk management programmes under the Animal Products Act or Food Act for further suitability checks of products regarding foreign matter contamination. These include actions they would need to take in the event of foreign matter being found, such as downgrading the product to food for animals, reprocessing, or disposal."
Under New Zealand's food safety laws, there are rules and systems in place to manage pathogens and contaminants (such as chemical or foreign matter) that have the potential to cause the most harm.
If a product available to consumers is found to be unsuitable, contaminated or mislabelled, the business in question must manage the risk to consumers, which may include recalling all potentially unsuitable products.
What about imported food?
Under the Biosecurity Act 1993, all goods imported into New Zealand must meet import health standards. According to MPI, an import health standard (IHS) is required for the importation of any goods that could pose a biosecurity risk. These commodities need to pass strict biosecurity requirements before clearance can be given and the goods can be successfully imported into New Zealand.
"Risk goods" are defined as items that may constitute, harbour, or contain an organism that may cause unwanted harm to natural or physical resources, or to human health, in New Zealand. Items that have import health standards include plants and plant products, animals and animal products, food, and biological products.
Now, you may be wondering: just how much food in New Zealand is imported from the US? According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, the United States' food and agricultural products have continued to prove popular in the New Zealand market; in 2022 the value of these products was a record US$629 million, US$413 million of which were consumer-oriented products.
As of 2023, the US is the second largest supplier of consumer-oriented food products to New Zealand, behind Australia. New Zealand imports from the US include packaged food, pet food, grapes, pork, cheese, animal feed, beer and wine.
With that being said, what's the deal with "unavoidable defects" in the US?
According to food safety specialist Ben Chapman, a professor in agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University, food manufacturers in the US have quality assurance employees who are "constantly taking samples of their packaged, finished product to be sure they're not putting anything out that is against the rules".
"They take 10 bags out of a weeklong production and try to shake out what might be in here," he told CNN. "Do we have particularly high insect parts or was it a particularly buggy time of year when the food was harvested? And they make sure they are below those FDA thresholds."
If it has been a "particularly buggy time of year", Chapman said it is almost impossible to remove all the eggs, legs and larvae from the product. Instead, manufacturers can send the food away to have it "reworked".
"Say I've got a whole bunch of buggy fresh cranberries that I can't put in a bag and sell," Chapman said. "I might send those to a cranberry canning operation where they can boil them and then skim those insect parts off the top and put them into a can.
"This is all a very, very, very low-risk situation.
"I look at it as a yuck factor versus a risk factor. Insect parts are gross but they don't lead to foodborne illnesses."
Stone, metal, plastic or glass parts potentially present in harvested foods present a much greater risk, he told CNN, despite all foods being subjected to X-rays and metal detectors.
Also much more dangerous are foodborne illnesses such as salmonella, listeria and E coli, he added, which can cause severe or potentially fatal sickness.
"Cross-contamination from raw food, undercooking food, handwashing and spreading germs from raw food, those are the things that contribute to the more than 48 million cases of foodborne illness we have every year in the US."
In conclusion, you can rest assured that any New Zealand-made or locally grown products will most likely be safe from these creepy-crawly bits and pieces, and Aotearoa's strict import health standards ensure imported goods won't endanger human health.
Does that mean the odd fragment of these "unavoidable defects" will never, ever make it past the border? Well, that's a question that's hard to answer.