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Keeping bugs out of breakfast cereal.

In the 1960s film "Mondo Cane," trendy New Yorkers are shown patronizing a restaurant that serves insects at exorbitant prices. A person need not travel to New York or pay huge sums to eat insects, indicates Barrie Kitto, a University of Texas at Austin biochemist. In fact, everyone who eats breakfast cereal probably consumes a small quantity of insect fragments every morning.

"A lot of the world eats insects as a matter of routine. It depends on your sensitivities." Nevertheless, the sensitivities of the average American do not accommodate the consumption of bugs. Primarily for this reason, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) imposes standards on grains sold as food, and inspectors are stationed at mills, bakeries, packaging plants, and other locales to ensure that no more than two insects per kilogram find their way into grain intended for humans.

The problem is that the tests for detecting insects or insect fragments are expensive, time-consuming, tedious, and sometimes inaccurate. Kitto has devised a substitute test for detecting insects that is being evaluated by the USDA for routine use. Rather than relying on the current mechanical methods of sorting grain or mixing powdered products with oil, Kitto's is a simple test in which a quantity of food product is mixed with chemicals to form a liquid. if insects or insect fragments are present, the liquid turns green. The more insects present, the greener the liquid.

"In the U.S., there are about half a dozen primary insects that can get into grain," Kitto points out. "Among the main ones are beetles, weevils, and moths, and everyone has eaten all three." While the consumption of these insects is not unhealthy, the presence of insects widely is considered a test of a food substance's cleanliness and the quality of its storage. Thus, virtually all countries have imposed standards for insects in many food substances - and for grain, in particular. Any U.S. grain shipment that exceeds the limit is condemned for use as human food, and can only be used as animal feed.

In addition to the insects that attack the outside of the grain for food, there are those that lay their eggs within its kernels. The egg, once laid in a kernel, becomes a worm-like larvae that eats the inside of the grain and eventually emerges as an adult insect. The detection of these internally infesting insects is particularly important for long-term storage of food products, since the bugs multiply rapidly.

Though the slightest mention of insects in food strikes most Americans as nauseating, Kitto maintains that there is little cause for undue concern. "It turns out that the general quality of American food - both whole and processed grains - is very good indeed." Storage can cause problems, since infestations can occur once the product has already been packaged and put on the store shelves, or even in the pantry at home.
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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