Today is the day when we go out of our way to consume creepy eats – eyeball appetizers, bug-encrusted cupcakes and kitty litter cake. Why not?

But for people like me – science majors who spend too much time reading lengthy tomes about the unappetizing realities of modern food and farming – we don’t need Halloween to cause our dinner to give us nightmares. All someone like me needs to do is take a stroll through a brightly lit grocery store. Here, the horrors of our industrial food system assault me on every aisle.

Run from the factory-farmed meat! Watch out for the pesticide-dipped fruit! Duck to avoid the chemical-filled snack foods!

Care for your own Halloween food scare? Then let me take you on a haunting tour of the shadowy underbelly of the food world, where culinary abominations lurk under familiar logos and beneath safety-sealed packages.

Just be warned, you could end up like me: Skeptical and overly cautious of all foods that don’t come from a farmer or food producer that you know personally. Because you never know when that tempting foodie treat will turn out to be a sneaky agribusiness trick.

 

RICE – We don’t have to start our tour at the bulk bins to find rice. This popular grain turns up in cereals, pastas, rice milks and countless processed foods. So what’s so freaky about this traditional staple? Oh, just a little thing called arsenic.

According to a recent investigation by Consumer Reports, all rice and rice products tested contained worrying amounts of naturally occurring and man-made arsenic. The inorganic, or man-made variety, is the most troubling, as it’s a known cancer causer. Turns out, rice absorbs water-soluble arsenic much better than other plants.

So what’s the source of all that inorganic arsenic? Humans, of course, who aren’t always particularly bright and do things like spray crops with arsenic-based pesticides and fertilize fields with factory farm poultry feces, which is often contaminated with arsenic too. These practices are particularly prevalent in the South, which is why Consumer Reports found that rice grown in states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas contained the highest levels of arsenic.

 

CORN/SOY/CANOLA – As we creep around the store on alert for sketchy eats, take notice of all the crackers, cereals, cookies, energy bars, chips, candies, sodas, canned pastas, instant soups, tubed yogurts and frozen dinners that fill the shelves. Read the label on any of these highly processed foods and it’s next to impossible to find one that doesn’t contain ingredients derived from corn, soybeans or canola.

These ingredients frighten on two levels. First, you have the overly processed derivatives of these plants, like high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oil, which have been linked to poor health. Second is that these foods are the big three when it comes to genetically engineered crops, which have never been independently tested for safety and aren’t labeled. Unless they are certified organic, you can confidently assume all corn, soy and canola is genetically modified.

Many of these crops have been manipulated in laboratories to manufacture pesticides within their cell walls. And the ones that don’t produce their own pesticides are sprayed with large amounts of chemicals, including the weed killer Roundup, which has been linked to infertility and cancer. While the marketers of genetically engineered seeds claim they allow farmers to use fewer chemicals, data show the introduction of these Frankenfood crops actually caused the use of pesticides to skyrocket.

 

APPLES/CELERY/BELL PEPPERS – Speaking of pesticides, if we tiptoe over to the produce section, we can spot many of their victims. Pesticides – both herbicides and insecticides – are designed to kill biological organisms and disrupt normal cellular function. Last time I checked, humans continue to be biological organisms composed of cells, which if nothing else, makes you question the intelligence of a species that sprays this stuff on its food. Not surprisingly, many of the most common pesticides are suspected or known carcinogens, hormone disruptors and neurotoxins.

Buying organic food is a proven way to reduce your exposure to pesticides. However, if the higher price of organics makes this difficult, use the Environmental Working Group’s yearly Dirty Dozen guide to pinpoint the fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residues and shell out the extra cash for the organic versions. Topping the list of pesticide-contaminated produce are apples, celery and sweet bell peppers. These are followed by peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, domestic blueberries and potatoes. The list could make quite the skull and crossbones salad bar for your Halloween party.

 

EGGS – Now we head away from the chemical-coated greenery in the produce department to find what awaits us at the back of the store. First up, eggs. Unless you’ve been living among the undead in recent years, you’ve no doubt heard about the unsavory conditions in factory-style egg farms. The former DeCoster egg farms have regularly horrified Mainers with reports of filthy conditions and abusive treatment of the animals, workers and environment.

In 2010, the nation suddenly shared our horror when more than 500 million factory-farmed eggs from Iowa farms owned by the DeCoster family were recalled due to widespread contamination with salmonella, which sickened close to 1,500 people. When the dust (and feces) settled, the resulting investigation revealed the chicken feed itself was contaminated with salmonella.

As if this isn’t enough to gross you out, ingredients used in industrial chicken feed may include such unappetizing additions as chicken carcasses and bones, animal feces, arsenic, feathers and antibiotics. Not scared yet? Remember that feeding beef cattle carcasses from other cattle gave us Mad Cow Disease.

 

PEANUT BUTTER – Who could be frightened by peanut butter? This plant-based protein (when not mixed with added fats and sugars) is a great addition to a healthy diet. Except when it’s filled with salmonella.

Major outbreaks of salmonella traced to contaminated peanut butter occurred in 2007 and 2009. Then in September of this year, what began as a recall of Trader Joe’s peanut butter snowballed into a recall of more than 100 products produced with ingredients from the Sunland Inc. factory in Portales, N.M. At least 36 people in 19 states have been sickened with salmonella from the plant’s peanut butter, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The recall now includes roasted peanuts, almond butters and endless varieties of both organic and non-organic peanut butters. Whole Foods Market and Newman’s Own Organics have recalled peanut butter cookies, General Mills has recalled granola bars, and Coconut Bliss has recalled its chocolate peanut butter frozen dessert, just to name a few of the brands touched by the latest incidence of food-borne illness spread by peanut butter. In past outbreaks, the presence of salmonella has been linked to unsanitary factory conditions. Because kids are prime consumers of peanut butter and their developing immune systems are particularly vulnerable to pathogens, it makes such industrial-scale contamination particularly scary.

 

CHICKEN – Keeping all that in mind as we make our way to the butcher counter, take a close look at those packages of sterile-looking chicken wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic. Unfortunately, there’s more there than meets the eye. Recalling the list of ingredients in chicken feed from our visit to the egg cooler, one has to wonder how much arsenic and antibiotics turn up in the chicken’s flesh.

But what rolls my stomach even more takes place in the grotesque confines of the slaughterhouse. Here, after they’re decapitated and had their feathers plucked, the chickens are submerged in cold water to reduce their temperature. The water bath also plumps up the outer layers of the meat and increases its weight as the carcasses absorb the water.

Ready for the truly disturbing part? In the poultry industry, these chiller baths are known as “fecal soup” due to all the feces, pathogens and other nasties they contain. Because few consumers savor the taste of poop, many slaughterhouses routinely inject the chicken meat with salt and flavor enhancers to mask the fecal soup flavor before they sell it to you.

 

HAMBURGER – Near the feces-flavored chicken sit the blood-red packages of hamburger. This cheap and most American of meats also happens to be the stuff that gives microbiologists nightmares. Their science-based fright comes from the way ground beef is made and the fact that it is a favorite haunt for pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli.

The bugs originate in the feces, vomit and stomach contents of cattle. In the feedlot and during the slaughtering process, these body fluids frequently ooze and splatter onto the carcasses. When a steak or roast is carved from these contaminated carcasses, the bacteria remains on the outside of the flesh but is killed off when the meat hits the cooking surface. In contrast, when parts of the carcass are ground up, any bacteria on the outside is mixed into the interior. Then if the hamburger isn’t cooked to well done, the bacteria remains alive and poisonous when the meat is consumed.

 

NOW THAT I’VE thoroughly ruined your appetite, let’s dash for the checkout before the microbes and Frankenfood decide to follow us home. Happy Halloween.

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila