On the Table

On the Table: Daddy Longlegs in your food? Gross, but it could be worse

CorrespondentOctober 15, 2013 

As critters go, the Daddy Longlegs spider is clean. That’s what I tell myself, repeatedly, as my mind drifts back to Saturday night’s dinner.

It was the mantra that got me through the remainder of the evening at a beloved Durham restaurant that shall remain nameless. As I finished my entrée, what I discovered in my food gave new meaning to farm-to-plate freshness.

Sprawled across the bottom of my plate was what resembled a really large spider, only limp and blackened. My waiter blanched as he confirmed my worst fears and whisked my plate away.

As I worked my mental magic to keep myself from losing it, I got to thinking. Daddy Longlegs was a friendly, even adorable childhood companion; it could have been much worse. A long hair for instance.

Besides, it’s no different than what lurks in lots of foods. This one was just more visible. Hugely so.

Still, federal regulations tolerate a certain amount of defective food in the marketplace. These defects are considered an aesthetic issue, nothing more.

Specific levels of rodent hairs, insect fragments, aphids, mold and other ingredients are deemed unavoidable and not a threat to human health. A turn-off, yes. Dangerous, usually not.

If you really want to know what might be in your food, you can read all about it in the “Defect Levels Handbook” available online at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. The FDA sets these levels in recognition of the economic reality that it’s impractical to grow, harvest and process foods and guarantee that no unintended extras make their way in.

So apple butter can contain a mold count of up to 12 percent, and frozen broccoli can average 60 aphids or mites per 100 grams. Peanut butter can contain one or more rodent hairs and an average of 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams.

I just got mine in one big, spindly dose. It’s no different. These things happen.

I tell myself that every time my mind wanders and I begin reconstructing each bite I took of my entrée, working the perimeter of the plate toward the middle until the surprise ingredient came into full view.

And I realized a few legs were unaccounted for.

It was just a sweet, albeit large, Daddy Longlegs. It could have been worse.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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