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Mealworms in cereal bag spark supply chain contamination questions

Mealworms found in cereal WFTS.png
Posted at 9:38 AM, Aug 09, 2022

In a time when the country is dealing with record inflation, most Americans are really conscious about not wasting food.

After a reporter learned of mealworms inside a bag of cereal and found another bag herself with mealworms, she wanted to learn where in the supply chain contamination can happen, what companies are doing to minimize defects in products, and how people can best store their food once they bring it home.

A viewer sent a video showing a bag of cereal with mealworms inside. The viewer said she got the box one morning and opened the bag the same day. The viewer provided a receipt to prove the date.

A reporter went to the same store and found the same brand of cereal with a similar lot number. She opened the bag and, after searching, discovered a couple of mealworms inside the bag.

The manager at the Target store said over the phone that they received two complaints (the reporter's and the viewer's), and they removed all the boxes with that lot code from the shelves.

The Director of Communications for Post Consumer Brands said in part, "We received one additional report in Tampa of someone finding mealworms in their product. There have been no other reports of this happening in other areas of the country."

"Oh yeah, this is a pretty heavy infestation of worms. It's common to find a few, but this is a lot, so they may have been there for a little while," said Dr. Jill Roberts.

Roberts is an associate professor at USF and specializes in food safety. Roberts was asked what happens if people don't notice mealworms in food and accidentally eat them.

"So the gross-out factor aside, which yes... no one wants to eat those. They look really nasty. They are actually edible. So mealworms are raised for feed, they are used for animals, and they are used for humans in some places where it is hard to get protein. They are actually raised on purpose to be used for foods," said Roberts.

In the case of these two boxes of cereal, the point of entry along the supply chain where the mealworms got in is unknown. Dr. Seckin Ozkul is the director of the USF Supply Chain Innovation Lab and provided more insight on where it could have happened.

"It could be in multiple different places within the supply chain. It could be the transportation, or it could be the warehouse where something like this could happen as well," said Ozkul.

Both experts explained that companies are actively working to stop contamination from entering the consumer's home.

"So what is the production plant going to do to prevent that? Inspections. They are going to use blowers they can use to get them out, but if they are tiny, tiny eggs, they may actually pass through some of that process," said Roberts.

"Companies are going to be doing QAQC (quality assurance, quality control) checks to ensure the products are transported throughout the supply chain in a healthy fashion. So - when my product hits the shelf - my product is actually good to go and doesn't have any defects," said Ozkul.

Roberts said there are ways to prevent contamination in foods like grains once the products are in a consumer's home.

"If you are concerned, you can put your cereal in hard plastic containers. So not Ziploc bags, not the bags they come in, but hard containers. Things cannot burrow through those," said Roberts. She said the key is to make sure your food stays dry.

"One thing that actually encourages the growth of those is moisture," said Roberts.

Here's the bottom line from Roberts: "So are they dangerous? No, not at all. That being said, we don't want them in our food, and we take a lot of steps to try and keep them out."

Roberts said it's critical to report any issues with food products immediately by contacting the store where the item was purchased and the company that made the item. Consumers can also report a problem to the FDA.

Post Consumer Brands' response (continued):

"Upon learning about a contaminated product, our consumer affairs team works with the consumer to gather details, including photos if possible, and provide reimbursement. Depending on the situation, we also may ask the consumer to return the product to us for further examination. The information is captured in a database that our quality teams use for ongoing monitoring, tracking, reporting and investigating purposes, and to determine if further action is needed.

The quality and safety of our products is our top priority. We follow industry-leading safety practices throughout the entire sourcing and production process to ensure that all our products are safe and wholesome. Once the product leaves our facilities, it is possible in rare instances for a product to be contaminated with insects. Although packaging is designed to provide the utmost protection, certain kinds of insects can bore their way into sealed packages.

With respect to the product you purchased, we received one additional report in Tampa of someone finding mealworms in their product. There have been no other reports of this happening in other areas of the country."

FDA Response:

"The FDA uses a variety of tools to engage industry and have explored faster approaches to effectively prevent or resolve issues and improve industry actions to assure product quality. The FDA commonly interacts with industry to resolve issues that often achieves more timely and effective corrective action to inspectional findings. For example, deficiencies may be resolved through alternative approaches such as holding regulatory meetings to discuss issues and expectations or sending untitled letters to notify firms of violations and requesting follow-up action. These activities, along with variations in manufacturing practices and industry compliance with FDA requirements from year-to-year, impact the type and number of actions taken to address unresolved problems on an annual basis. 

Additionally, the FDA takes seriously reports of possible adulteration of a food that may also cause illnesses or injury. Depending on the seriousness of the problem, an FDA investigator may visit the person who made the complaint, collect product samples, and initiate inspections.  Complaints of a less serious nature or those that appear to be isolated incidents are monitored and the information may be used during a future inspection of a company to help the FDA identify problem areas in a production plant. The complaints are also discussed with company management during these inspections. It is also important to note that when specific consumer guidance can be developed (such as avoiding a specific contaminated food), the FDA and CDC will publish outbreak advisories communicating that guidance."

This article was written by Lauren St. Germain for WFTS