We recently encountered a news article about a consumer demanding that Hormel Food Corp. apologize for what was described as “worms” inside a can of “Spam.” The first thing that came to mind was this must be a joke straight out of the comic strip Dilbert.
For those who don’t go straight to the comics section when reading the newspaper, Dilbert is a daily strip that pokes fun at office life. In one strip a few years back, a computer complained about having nothing to eat but spam—and “some of the spam had worms.”
But the news article was no joke. According to the story, the consumer who found the worms was so serious he brought the can of worms to a radio station.
Food contamination is, of course, a serious business, but let’s be fair. Blaming the manufacturer for everything is not the way to go. It was alarming to us that the reporter seemed to twist the words of Hormel Food Corp. into a very disturbing headline that may possibly be interpreted by a reader as meaning that such things occur on a regular basis.
Links, Kinks in the Food Chain
Only a few decades ago, the food chain was simple. The farmer planted the food and, once harvested, it ended up on the table, simple. Today, however, the path from the farm to the table has become highly complex.
The farmer plants and harvests the crops, which are then transported to a processing facility, a storage facility, a shipping facility, to a country distributor, to a wholesaler, to a retailer, and then finally to the end consumer. Some routes are even more complex, especially if the food from the field is only an ingredient for another ingredient that will be used in the manufacture of a totally different food product!
With so many links in the food chain, there is a greater chance of things going wrong—and the fault may not always be with the manufacturer. Simply put, the more processed the food, the more chances of contamination.
Track That Worm
Following the food chain, let us try to find the possible point of contamination for canned meat. Where was the point of contamination from the farm?
Some animals do have worms as parasites, but sick animals cannot be slaughtered for food. Governments all over the world are strict about this. If a case does happen, recalls and warnings are soon given out. A good example of this is “double dead” meat, which sporadically appears in the local news. “Double dead” is slang for animals that were not slaughtered in accordance with the government code. Meat for human consumption must always come from healthy animals and this meat must pass as thorough an inspection as possible.
The news story claimed the product was “spoiled” before the expiration date printed on the can. If this was the fault of the manufacturer then ALL cans in that same batch should also have been spoiled. But it seemed to be an isolated incident.
The article also referred to “worms.” Based on the descriptions given in the story, we believe the worms were actually common house maggots. They described the maggots as being small. If the life cycle of the common housefly lasts around one month and they remain in the larva (worm) stage for about a week, maggots also hatch in less than 24 hours. Judging from the description of the “worms,” the maggots were less than a week old and the contamination happened from within 1 to 5 days before it was opened. So it is very possible the eggs were laid while the can was in the store.
One probable scenario is the can was damaged while in the store. It was possibly dropped or crushed in some way. Although the can did not display any visible dents, the seams may have been damaged causing a leak. A fly may have been attracted to the leak, laying its eggs. The eggs hatch and the larvae start feeding, thus drying up the leak. The larvae then crawl inside to continue feeding, so there would be no signs of contamination outside the can. When the can was opened, voila, worms!
Why are we so sure there was a leak? Easy, fly larvae need oxygen to live. Cans are hermetically sealed (airtight); and due to the nature of the process called “canning,” the inside of the container is in a vacuum. The only way for air to get inside a can is if the can itself is damaged.
Sometimes a leaking can is not visible to the naked eye because of its construction. This is why consumers are constantly warned not to buy cans that have even the smallest dent as this may be a sign that the can was mishandled. Hormel later released a statement saying the can was damaged shortly before it was opened and this was a possible source of contamination.
Several groups have recently talked about organizing themselves to form groups related to food safety. Although there are tons of regulations that address food safety issues, it is about time to make effective consumer groups flourish.
It is good to make consumers more aware of their right to quality, safe food. But let’s not point fingers too hastily.
Print ed: 01/09