Warning: This Post Contains Bugs
posted by Ryan Calo
Let’s say a major food company starts to use grasshopper abdomens, which they euphemistically call “melanoplus core,” as a key ingredient in cookies. Would the law come to require a warning? The scenario is not so far fetched. As the most recent New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly both observe, bugs are a very cheap and efficient source of nutrients. And they are growing in culinary popularity.
So, should the food-maker warn? Clearly this will turn on the purpose of notice in this context. One theory says it’s about objective harm to the consumer. You’re taking on serious legal risk by not warning consumers that your product contains something to which many people are allergic or that might be harmful to women who are pregnant. But what about totally harmless bugs? Bugs that are healthier than whatever highly processed ingredient they are substituting for. What then?
Objective harm to consumers is underinclusive; it leaves out subjective harm.1 Setting aside for a moment the famous duty to warn potential buyers that your house is haunted, if it turned out that the ice cream ingredient carrageenan were made of people (it’s people!2) then the company really ought to let us know.
But this definition is overinclusive. Imagine you could see bacteria. You might never touch anything. You definitely would not take public transportation. Or imagine that there were warnings about bacteria on every surface that contained it. Most bacteria is not harmful to anyone with an immune system. But knowing about it might be paralyzing.
It turns out we do use bugs in food, by the way. The red food dyes cochineal and carmine are made from crushed insects from South and Central America. There is no duty to flag this for consumers. I think that’s the right result. The alternative is to second-guess every innovative act of gastronomy.
There are limits. I am great with requiring the recall of formula containing too many beetles because, it turns out, beetles give babies a stomach ache. And I’d be good with slapping a warning on bee venom pie. Grasshopper abdomens? You tell me.