Bugs in Your Food

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Last month McDonald's was ordered to pay $12 million to Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and vegetarians who thought they were eating beef-free fries and hash browns. In 1990, McDonald's issued a statement saying they would no longer use beef fat for frying, using 100% vegetable oil instead. However, the company never claimed that the fries they sold were appropriate for vegetarians. It was assumed among the restricted eaters that something as innocent as a fried potato would be appropriate, when in actuality the fabulous taste of McDonald's fries was due to added "beef essence." Currently, American Muslims who follow halal a ritualistic slaughter of beef are trying to get in on the settlement as well.

All this leaves me wondering: If you are a vegan, why are you eating or even for that matter, entering an establishment whose success has been based almost entirely on the thing you're so against beef? Why are you eating foods that do not come served with an ingredient list? Wouldn't truly responsible adherents of a cause or religion avoid eating food that doesn't come properly labeled and is produced so close to substances they abhor?

I can understand vegans being upset by the revelation that there is beef in their fries, though, and no doubt part of their rage comes from the anxiety-inducing question that the McDonald's case raises: If meat could make a sneak appearance in fries, where else could it be hiding incognito? Many "vegetable" soups, if you read the ingredient list, are made of chicken or beef stock. Veggie burgers commonly contain eggs and/or cheese. Margarines are sometimes made with animal products. Some beans and breads contain lard. It seems that you could spend most of your day reading ingredient labels and second-guessing their validity, if that was central to your way of life.

One of the most interesting examples of an animal by-product showing up in an unassuming food is cochineal extract in fruit juice. Cochineal extract, or carmine, is a red dye that is used in everything from candy to juice to lipstick and is made from the female cochineal beetles that feed on red cactus berries. While the males usually escape the fate of becoming red dye because they have wings and can make an easy exit, the females are not so lucky. Born without wings, they are easily collected when the cactus is scraped clean. After they are collected, the female beetles meet their death in boiling water, and their corpses are laid out in the sun to dry before they are crushed into a powder, which is subsequently used for dying purposes. It takes nearly 70,000 of these little bugs to make one-pound of cochineal, but the average human only consumes one to two drops of it in a given year.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, in its Guide to Food Additives, makes the following recommendation in regards to cochineal extract: "These colorings have caused allergic reactions that range from hives to life-threatening anaphylactic shock. It is not known how many people suffer from this allergy. The Food and Drug Administration should ban cochineal extract and carmine or, at the very least, require that they be identified clearly on food labels so that people could avoid them...A label statement should also disclose that carmine is extracted from dried insects so that vegetarians and others who want to avoid animal products could do so."

Sounds like a righteous crusade, but it may be an unnecessary one. When I went to the local grocery, I found that such juices as Tropicana Orange-Strawberry with Calcium contain cochineal extract and clearly list it as an ingredient on the label. Shouldn't this be sufficient? While the label doesn't specifically note that it is derived from beetles, vegans are likely educated enough to know the origin of this additive. As for the idea of banning it simply because there have been cases of allergic reactions: if we use this logic, we should ban peanuts as well.

At some point, we need to stop blaming the food producers and take some personal responsibility. Instead of demanding the ban of cochineal extract's use, if I were a vegan, I would make an effort to know the substance's origin and choose not to drink the juice. Surely that would be morally superior to imposing my dietary restrictions on the entire populace through a ban. And instead of suing McDonald's for fry injustice, I would never have frequented the establishment to begin with. Some lifestyle choices demand a thorough knowledge of food and big dose of personal responsibility for one's consumption choices. And if there's any doubt, don't eat out.

Karen L. Schneider is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health.


July 15, 2002

Just a note to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your article about being responsible for choosing where you eat and what you eat rather than blaming the rest of society. If you happen to eat french fries, you could claim that you're a vegetarian, then sue McDonald's for having the adulterated food.

In my opinion, they are merely trying to get rich off of suing someone.


January 12, 2004

A short comment on Karen Schneider's article "Bugs in Your Food":

While the male cochineal beetle does escape the fate of being ground up and used for food and cosmetic coloring, its lot in life still isn't significantly better than the female's. After developing wings, the males have four hours to live. So both have unpleasant endings, one by our hands and the other naturally.