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Sunday, 29 March 2015

Strange food that is not on the restaurant menu.

What's Cooking Behind The Kitchen Door?

What's on the restaurant menu today? 

After working as a public health inspector for 36 years in Toronto, I have seen my share of strange food items that regular diners do not consider as food. These items are usually illegally imported or obtained from underground suppliers, and these uninspected products can be contaminated with chemicalspoison or carry exotic parasites and diseases.

Sometimes, even a health inspector can get a big surprise during inspection of restaurant, food store, supermarket or warehouse. During a food safety inspection a few years ago, I found
some baby sharks and other shark products in a supermarket (photos - right and below) hidden under a pile of ice in the cooler. The operator was not able to provide a proof of purchase to prove the product origin and that the sharks and other shark products were safe for consumption and from a legal commercial supplier. As shark meat can contain high level of dangerous environmental chemical such as mercury which can exist in two chemical types: Inorganic mercury and the more dangerous type, organic mercury. Methyl-mercury is the most common organic mercury found in the aquatic environment and suspected to be a human carcinogen. Older and larger fish such as sharks tend to have higher levels of mercury due to bio-accumulation and exposure to high mercury level in human may result in several health effect such as mercury poisoning. Long term complications may include damage to the nervous system, kidney and brain, numbness in the hands and feet, skin rashes, anxiety, memory problems, trouble speaking, trouble hearing, or trouble seeing.

Illegal wild games
A few years ago when a health inspector opened a fridge at a Toronto banquet hall basement, there was the head of a deer (Photos - below) sitting in the middle of the fridge while the meats have already been served. 

A couple of years ago in Toronto's east end, during a routine inspection, a health inspector ordered an operator to open the box she was trying to hide under a kitchen counter, when she opened the box, a whole bunch of  live American bullfrogs were hopping around.

The operator was questioned about the box of frogs (Photo - left) in her kitchen, she said she was going to slaughter those frogs to serve in the restaurant that night because her customers demanded fresh frogs on the menu. 

However, both operators did not have proper permit to slaughter and serve wild games as required by law, so the deer head and frogs were seized by Wildlife Officers over permit and food safety issues and the operators were charged for serving unapproved meat.

Edible insects
There are many people who delight in platters of bugs like ants, scorpions, worms, jelly fish, crickets, and even frogs. Ever try a nice dish of chili-fried crickets, cricket-fried rice or grilled crickets and a scorpion pizza. Pests usually come to mind when people think of insects such as cockroaches and flies at restaurants which usually earn a closure from the public health inspector. However, when edible bugs are served in restaurants, they become 'food' and if cooked and handled properly, there is usually no health hazards associated.

(Grasshopper found in produce)

(Crickets as topping on hot dog)

Some other examples of strange food items found by public health inspectors while doing routine inspections

While inspecting a supermarket in Toronto, inspector found a few cases of frozen soft shell turtles (Photo - right) in a walk-in freezer. The operator was not able to prove the turtles were from a legal supplier for commercial use as required by law. In other incidents, bags of dried sea horses, insects, animal parts without labels often stored in locations which they don't want public health inspector to look.
In one herbal shop, inspector found a box of dried lizards and snakes (Photo - left) hidden in the basement storage area at the store under a pile of herbal products. 
Again, Wildlife officers were notified of the finding and the illegal products were seized. 

However, one of the strangest item found by a public health inspector during an inspection was a tray of 'fake tiger
penis' (Photo - right), or often referred to as 'Tiger Whip', in the freezer of a herbal store. These later were identified as bull parts from a slaughter plants which the operator tried to pass these as tiger parts. As some people believe the tiger penis bone is the symbol of the tiger's power, including the sexual one Wikipedia, this created a high demand for tiger penis bone on the black market. Because trading of tiger parts is illegal in Canada, this also created a supply of fake tiger parts in the retail food market.

Rooster testicles
Finally, we heard of people eating food like Rocky Mountain Oysters or Prairie Oysters (calf testicles) and such products can be legally purchased from food stores or processing plants. But not too many people have heard of Rooster Oysters on the restaurant menu. While investigating a complaint about an illegal slaughter plant processing chicken in a downtown garage (Photo - newspaper clips below).

public health inspector found a box of strange animal parts that look like 'chestnuts' inside the freezer which later identified to be rooster testicles (Photo - right). 

Can you eat rooster testicles?

It is not unusual for people to eat rooster testicles if they purchased them from a legal supplier, however, because these testicles and the chicken were illegally processed, so all were seized and disposed after the establishment closed by the public health inspector.

Example of how illegal meat products are being smuggled into other countries
(News clip from NBC Feb.12, 2017
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found 22 pounds of animal parts inside a traveler's luggage at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport last week, according to NBC News.  Raw pig, chicken, and cow meat were all found inside a traveler's suitcase arriving from Vietnam on February 4, 2017. The traveler was also carrying hearts, tongues, heads and various other body parts. These kinds of meats can potentially be carriers of harmful diseases, and they were destroyed. According to a news release, about 4,638 prohibited plant materials and animal products are being seized by U.S. Customs and Border officers on a typical day. Can some of these illegal food products becoming menu items in restaurants and what is the food safety risk?

Full article by NBC : Illegal meat products found in Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

What is the risk of illegal bush meat trade?


Food Safety Video

Photos in this article - property of Jim Chan.                   



    1. A coworker of mine found a black bear carcass in a walk-in refrigerator on one inspection.

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