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Get smart about what is allowed in our food

Deadly bacteria in spinach, eggs and peanut butter make for scary headlines. But almost as shocking is what isn't in the news -- the stuff that's actually allowed in food, like insect parts and toxic chemicals.

ShopSmart, the shopping magazine from the publisher of Consumer Reports recently unveiled the top shockers that the food labels won't tell you, plus what you can do to avoid them.

"Informing our readers about making smarter choices is a big part of what we do," said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor in chief of Shop-

Smart. "By offering a better understanding of the groceries being tossed into our supermarket carts, we can provide consumers with the opportunity to make better informed decisions about the products we consume on a daily basis."

ShopSmart's top food shockers and what you can do include:

*Bugs in your food. Because it wouldn't be feasible to grow, harvest and process food without a few tiny creepy-crawlies hitchhiking along, the Food and Drug Administration sets tolerance levels for what are termed naturally occurring defects.

For example, a 24-ounce container of cornmeal can have up to 13 insects, 745 insect fragments and 27 rodent hairs.

What you can do: If you discover unwanted visitors in a newly purchased product, return it to the store or the manufacturer for a refund. If you're not sure whether a food is infested, freeze it for four days or heat it in the oven at 140 degrees for an hour to kill insects and eggs.

*Consuming clones. The FDA does not require labeling on most products that contain genetically engineered plant material or on meat and milk from cloned animals. Genetically modified versions of corn, soybeans, canola and cotton are widely sold in the United States.

What you can do: If you'd prefer to avoid milk and meat from cloned cows and genetically modified plant ingredients, buy organic. Unfortunately, there's no way to avoid consuming some genetically modified ingredients.

*Carnivore chicken. Livestock feed can include things like cow meat and bones, which might be fed to chickens, pigs and even farmed fish. And cows might be fed processed feathers and waste from the floors of chicken coops.

What you can do: ShopSmart recommends looking for beef or chicken certified organic by the USDA. Claims of "no additives," "no antibiotics," "no hormones" and "no steroids" are less reliable since they can't be verified.

*Labels lie. Some labels can outsmart even careful shoppers. "Natural" products might contain high-fructose corn syrup; a food "made with" an ingredient often includes just a smidgen; and a "whole-grain" cereal could lack substantial fiber.

What you can do: If you want the whole story, you still have to flip to the back label and scan the nutrition facts. Check not just the calories but also serving sizes. And scan the percent of daily values.

*Fresh meat? Many supermarkets sell ground beef and steaks packaged with gas that keeps them looking fresh and red for a month or more, even if the meat has spoiled.

In that process, used in factory-wrapped (or case-ready) meat, most of the oxygen in the package is replaced with other gases, including tiny amounts of carbon monoxide, that react with pigment and keep the meat red.

What you can do: Ask whether your grocer sells meat packed with carbon monoxide. For fruits, buy locally or at least what's in season. (Frozen fruits and veggies are a good option any time of year because they're usually flash frozen immediately after harvest.)

By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.

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