The “Well Blog” at the New York Times had a post today about insects in food–and made the same, common error that drives me crazy: getting the classification of the insect used to make Carmine, a pinkish dye, completely wrong. Compounding that error, though, they used this as an illustration:
That photo lead me to the source of their image–alas, the Taxonomy FAIL belongs to The Center for Science in the Public Interest. [they have now removed the offending photo; you can see a screen shot here.]
That is a BEETLE. Not even remotely a scale insect, much less the actual Cochineal Scale Insect.
I’ll re-use the description of scale insects from this Vermont Extension publication:
“Scale insects are a peculiar group and look quite different from the typical insects we encounter day to day. Tiny, immobile, with no visible legs or antennae, they resemble individual fish scales pressed tightly against the plant on which they are feeding.”
I can’t make out where this original image is from, but DAMN. Someone’s Google-Fu is pretty sucky, when they can’t tell a scarab from a scale.
What do scale insects look like? This. The proper species is Dactylopius opuntiae (Cockerell). The beetle pictured above is probably at least 10 times bigger than these little bags of pigment and guts.
Even worse, the Times writer left a snotty remark for a commenter who tried to point out her taxonomic mistake. (The Times author used Wikipedia as a source. Egad.)
Even Even worse, CSPI goes on to call for a ban on these insects, which is a terrible idea. The first part of their article is ok, if not entirely accurate:
After a decade-long gestation period, the Food and Drug Administration has finally ordered that food and cosmetics manufacturers that color their products with carmine and cochineal list them by name in ingredient lists. Until now, these colorings, extracted from the dried bodies of the tiny cochineal bug, have been hidden under the terms “artificial colors” or “color added.”
Cochineal and carmine are both labeled in food; it’s just optional. You can find foods with these labels on your shelf right now, and I am sure your lipstick has one of these pigments on its label.
Then CSPI goes on to say:
But, ideally, FDA should have exterminated these critter-based colorings altogether.
Ah, so cute. And so wrong. This insect is an important cash crop. From an NPR story* about cochineal:
“Even though a full pound of cochineal sells for just $1.30, harvesting the bug earns enough money to feed and clothe a whole family in the impoverished highlands region of Peru. An estimated 40,000 Peruvian families depend on harvesting the bugs — which belong to a class of scale insects — to make a living.”
A very few individuals may be allergic to the compounds produced by these insects, and improved labeling is a good idea. But, frankly, I’ll take this over Red Dye #2 (derived from coal tar) any day! Cochineal supports subsistence farmers in poor parts of the world, and is remarkably non-toxic.
The NYTimes article mostly seems freaked that there are bugs in food, period:
“the new rule contains one glaring omission. It doesn’t require companies to tell you that the ingredients come from a bug.”
Yes, there is no requirement to explicitly state that carmine is derived from an insect. Of course, the FDA also does not require Jell-O to reveal it’s made from pig hooves and tendons, or that rennet, a key component of cheese making, often comes from baby cow stomachs (and sometimes ends up in your Mars Bar).
*NPR got the taxonomy right. Neener.