What would happen if you opened your cereal box and found insects where the raisins should be? You would be ticked off, to say the least. You would probably write a letter complaining to the cereal company!
But that letter wouldn't do much good. That's because nine times out of 10, it's not the food company's fault if insects get into their product. Pests usually bore or sneak into packages during transportation or in storage warehouses, according to Agricultural Research Service entomologist Michael Mullen in Manhattan. --Not the Manhattan in New York near the Statue of Liberty. The other Manhattan, the one in Kansas, where the tornado carried off Dorothy and Toto to Oz!
Mullen works at the Grain Marketing and Production Research Center. There, he's been helping food and feed manufacturers design insect-proof packages because the food industry faces restrictions on using chemical pesticides on and near food products.
Mullen and his fellow bug scientists say there are two kinds of stored product insects: invaders and penetrators. Invaders include pests with wacky names like the confused flour beetle and the saw-toothed grain beetle. These critters sneak into food containers through cracks, crevices and holes.
Penetrators aren't so sly. These guys--the lesser grain borer, cigarette beetle, warehouse beetle and rice moth, for example--simply chew holes in the packages. They can bore through one or more layers of packaging--cardboard, plastic, you name it.
Ever wonder why the plastic liner in breakfast cereal boxes is so strong and tight? --Because insects home in on packages that let food odors escape. Those inner liners have to create a strong, airtight seal. Also, a plastic film "overwrap"--that fits tightly around a package--prevents insects from smelling the contents.
Other solutions to keep insects out of food and feed include: changing the type or pattern of glue on box seals and using extra reinforcement on the bottom of bags and boxes.
How can you tell if a package is insect-proof? Guessing won't work, so Mullen developed scientifically proven lab tests. They tell whether the packaging materials really do keep insects out. His tests have led to insect-resistant, pesticide-free packages for dry pet foods, raisins, baby cereals, pancake mixes and breakfast cereals.
After taking Mullen's suggestions, one company reported 75 percent fewer consumer complaints from insect-related problems. That's a lot fewer letters from angry moms!
--By Linda McGraw, formerly Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff Text and Photo courtesy ofwww.ars.usda.gov