Some of the word combos that have trended hard enough to end up on Twitter’s ‘What’s Happening’ sidebar this week have included Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Topanga, and Hot Karl. If you’re extremely online, you’ve just nodded three times, because you know that all of those #trends were because of writer and podcast host Jensen Karp, who was Twitter’s main character for at least 48 straight hours.
On Monday, Karp posted about finding what appeared to be a pair of lightly sugared shrimp tails—and some other unpleasant surprises—inside a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. After General Mills went full “Well, ack-tu-ally’ and told him that he was holding “an accumulation of the cinnamon sugar,” social media became well and truly invested in this story.
He did an interview with the New York Times, which mentioned that he was married to Danielle Fishel, who played Topanga Lawrence Matthews on classic TGIF sitcom “Boy Meets World,” and then the internet discovered that Karp was once signed to Interscope Records under the name Hot Karl. (If you already knew all of this before you read this paragraph, please log off and go outside. Just for, like, 10 minutes.)
As of this writing, Karp hasn’t posted an update since he FedExed one shrimp tail to General Mills and gave the other one to a crustacean researcher at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles for DNA analysis. In the days since...all this happened, others have posted pictures or shared stories about the horrendous items that they’ve found in various foods (and some have questioned whether the shrimp thing happened at all, which tends to happen whenever anything goes this viral.)
We wanted to know how common it was for random stuff to appear inside cereal boxes or other packaged goods, and how manufacturers prevent it from happening even more often. VICE reached out to Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University to talk about foreign objects, assorted rodents and, of course, Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
VICE: So we’ll get to the Cinnamon Toast shrimp tails in a second, but for starters, what kinds of foreign objects are most commonly found in packaged foods?
Chapman: It really kind of depends on the food itself. In a food-manufacturing setting, the three things that we worry about most from a public health or food-safety standpoint are metal, plastic, and glass. Depending on the type of equipment that’s being used, there have been examples of a blade chipping and shavings of metal ending up in food, or a string of wire gets chopped into little tiny pieces and ends up in the food. Glass is something that we’re really concerned about in food processing and food safety because it’s hard to see and hard to find once it’s in a product. We’re really working to get glass out of the [manufacturing] environment entirely.
How are those items detected if they do somehow get into the food?
As far as screening for foreign materials, it kind of depends on the business, but metal detectors or magnets are commonly used to look for metal. If you have a uniformly sized product like cereal, X-ray is a newer technology that is being used, and it works like a form of AI to say well here are all of the shapes we would expect to find in a box, and here’s what it looks like if it breaks, so let’s look for something in these thousands of boxes that go through in an hour that doesn’t look like that. The other thing that happens in a manufacturing setting is that there’s a quality assurance food safety system built in to take a sample of products. They’ll open up boxes and packaging, and look through a sample of it. It’s not every box or every 10th box, but every shift they’re opening up packages to test the quality of the food and to look for anything else that could be in that package that shouldn’t be there.
In the case of cereal, does someone just look into those boxes, or would they completely empty a box out?
As a consumer, I expect my cereal will look like squares or whatever shape, and that I’m not going to get a bunch of dust or broken squares. So there are machines for sorting and sifting that allow for screening that as well. It’s often what looks like a shaker table that has holes big enough that allow broken pieces to fall below and become trash, but they’re not too big to allow the squares to fall through. Most of the foreign material that we’re worried about would fall through those shaker table screens before the product gets packaged.
So let’s talk about the Cinnamon Toast Crunch situation. When you find several sort-of unrelated objects in one package, what does that tell you?
As I followed this story, there were a few things that went through my mind on it. First, it looks like the shrimp tails are sugar-coated—I don’t know for sure, like, that’s really difficult to see in the pictures. But if [the tails] were introduced into the box post-packaging, and it’s been transported, you know the sugar is going to move around and coat it, but that depends on the sort of situation of how the shrimp tail was introduced—was it wet, was there humidity, was some critter eating it—and that may make it look like it’s got this dusting that we would expect to see in the package on the product on the shrimp tail.
The other thing was, as this unfolded on Twitter, he said he went further into the box and found sort of what looked like some rodent droppings and some black things that look like they were baked into the Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Those two things might look similar, but without any sort of analysis—and I think that’s where things are at right now—it would be hard to say that it’s a rodent dropping baked into the product. One of my kid’s favorite cereals is Cinnamon Toast Crunch, so it’s something I’m familiar with, and I’ve definitely seen over-toasted items in Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’s not surprising to see a defect in a cereal-type product, or if you think about other packaged products like potato chips, you’ll often have chips with discoloration from frying, or a little piece of potato skin that’s been left on or whatever. There’s no skin in Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the coloring of those squares is unrelated to the other items that are in [the package.]
Do you have any ideas about how this could’ve happened?
Here’s my best guess: at some point, post-packaging, a rodent made a nest inside this box, and whether that was while it was sitting in the manufacturing warehouse, in transport, in a distribution center, at a grocery store—all of those things, I think, are way more likely than a shrimp tail getting into the box pre-packaging. This is also the part that we’ll literally never know, because the movement of cereal boxes isn’t something that we track very well.
I was working through this concept with some of my food safety expert friends, and it could be that the shrimp came from a break room that someone had a shrimp meal in or something. It could’ve been at the retail level, where we know that these products are sold alongside seafood. A distribution center is, to me, really really likely in this situation because you’ve got lots of different things that are being stored together. This type of product has a pretty good shelf life, so it might’ve sat there for a while, and you may not see the evidence of a pest that you would in a retail setting or a grocery store. It just looks like somewhere in the distribution chain, a rodent got into the box and dragged some shrimp tails in there, and there was some poop and some string [that it took into the box.]
But unless the rodent goes full Disney character and says ‘Hey guys, it was me,’ then we’re never really going to know.
Right. These situations are like a detective guessing game. When there’s a [product] recall or an event, we try to figure out what are all the possible entry points and the likely entry points. One entry point that we haven’t talked about that is still possible is that these foreign objects were introduced at this person’s home—not on purpose, and not nefariously. A cereal box could be opened, and a rodent could go in, eat, and drag other food in there and eat it, and then leave. It wasn’t super clear [in the Twitter thread] when the box was opened, and we don’t know whether they have shrimp in their home, all of that stuff, we just don’t know. But that’s also something that’s possible in this situation.
Did this situation seem particularly weird to you?
It’s not common, but it’s not uncommon either. Something we deal with in the food world is how do we keep pests out of flour, or insects out of fresh produce, and then there’s certainly mice and rodents, and other things. I was talking to a couple of people in the food world about this yesterday and they’re often dealing with foreign object management. They were like ‘Wow, this became a really big story’ and, it’s not the only time that we’ve heard about foreign objects and food, so why did this one become such a big deal? I think part of it is because shrimp are weird, right? You don’t expect to see that in a cereal box. It was also an individual who’s got a lot of social media following, so all of that plays into this but it’s certainly not a unique situation. I’d also say that from a food safety standpoint, it’s not something that I’d put on my ‘Top 100 Things That are Risky.’ Having rodent poop in there is certainly gross, but the likelihood of getting sick from food-borne illness in this situation is really, really low.
You mentioned the difficulty of keeping pests and rodents out of food, and I know the FDA has its own guidelines for what’s allowable. I read through their Food Defect Levels Handbook which lists the acceptable levels for insect parts and rat hairs and what they call ‘rodent filth’ in dozens and dozens of foods. Who is responsible for policing that, and ensuring that there’s not too much...rodent filth?
The sectors that I’ve worked with, whether it’s meat and poultry, seafood, fresh produce, or peanut butter, there are regulatory standards that have to be met. If you don’t meet that standard, you’re breaking federal law, and the consequences of that are really steep. There have been outbreaks that have led to criminal charges, and a lot of it falls on the manufacturer to follow the rules. The FDA in this case would be the policing organization and, although a lot of it depends on the size and location of the manufacturer, it wouldn’t be uncommon to have an inspector go through that plant annually to take samples and check whether they’re following the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Whoever buys these products from the manufacturers will often do their own internal check, and will send product back if it’s outside their specifications. If it’s outside the FDA’s specifications, they could call the FDA and say ‘This plant’s making stuff that’s illegal.’ There’s a lot of accountability within the system that includes the regulatory world, but it’s ultimately up to that business to follow the specifications that are in the law, and the consequences are high.
I’ll add that these are the FDA allowances, and food manufacturing companies can and often will set much higher standards than what the laws allow for. So, peanut butter, for example, can have one or more rodent hairs and 30 insect fragments for every 100 grams. A peanut butter manufacturer may think, we’ll get customer complaints with 30 insect fragments, so our goal will be less than eight or something.
That makes sense. If somebody finds an identifiable insect fragment, a little head or a thorax, then that product is going back to the supermarket or on social media—and nobody wants to be the next Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Is there any way to estimate how many insect parts or rodent hairs we might eat during an average day?
That question’s really hard to answer because there’s so much variability in what we eat, as individuals. But what I would say is that we’ve all consumed insect parts and rodent hairs as part of our fresh and processed foods. It would be almost impossible to avoid this. When issues like this come up, it certainly highlights the yuck factor of, you know, what’s out there, but food comes from a biological system, and we don’t have a way to make it sterile. That’s why those tolerances are in place.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.