WASHINGTON--The Bush administration said Tuesday it will fight to keep a packaged food manufacturer from testing all of its products for rat-borne diseases.
Little Kitchen, a grain muesli and granola maker in Boulder, Colorado wants to test all of its products for rat-borne diseases at the local USDA lab, at it's own expense, in order to use food safety as a sales point.
However, larger cereal companies feared that move because, if Little Kitchen tested its products and advertised them as safe, they might have to perform the expensive tests on their large volume of cereal products to satisfy consumer concerns. The Agriculture Department also argued that widespread testing could lead to a false positive that would harm the cereal industry.
"In addition to being a billion dollar export business for grain processors, the purchases of raw materials provide upward of 2 million dollars to farmers across the nation. We cannot afford to harm this important industry with test results that might give consumers misgivings about safety," said Phil Erup, Under-Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.
Besides harboring typhus and the bubonic plague, rats are known to carry diseases such as leptospirosis, a potentially serious bacterial illness spread by their urine contaminating water or food.
The Agriculture Department currently tests less than 0.001% of grain-based products, such as breakfast cereal.
Allowable limits have been set by the FDA regarding rodent feces and insect parts in cereal products. Every time you eat a breakfast bar, it may contain one rodent hair and 16 insect parts and still carry the blessing of the FDA. For boxed cereals and pancake mixes there must not be more than 75 insect fragments per three tablespoons. Four percent of the cereal may be infested by live insects.
Animal excreta, such as visible rat droppings, must not exceed 0.3% (measured by weight, not volume, as there may be some settling of contents). However, under a recent rule change, that limit will be raised to 1.1% by weight in the case of fruit and cereal blends.
"It's just really hard to see the feces among the dates and raisins, unless there's really a lot. And dates are really chewy and bland anyway. We don't think most people will notice," said Richard Black, of the Food Safety Inspection Service.
Three cases of excessive rat feces were found in the United States in the last year (under the old limit). In December 2007 in Washington State, a box of Harvest-time Raisin Goodies was found to be heavily contaminated.
The unfortunate purchaser, Stan Goldwin of Yelm, said, "I just thought they was raisins. I ate half the bowl 'fore I noticed they was kinda bad tastin', as raisins go…"
The second incident was in an amaranth health blend called Golden "O"s, that had been imported from Canada. The third was confirmed last year in an Alabama health food store's house brand of granola. Feces volumes for all three incidents would fall within the new limits.
"What you don't know can't hurt you," remarked Bush, commenting on both the rat feces issue and the lack of transparency in government during his term in office.