Remember a couple weeks ago when Kellogg's freaked out everybody in the nation by announcing a recall of 28 million boxes of cereal because they smelled funny? Remember all the jokes about the roll-out of new Kellogg's Stank-O's and how anybody could possibly be sickened by an unusual smell from the package liners of sugary breakfast cereals so packed with chemicals that you can often smell the "honey" or "real apple flavor" through the box?
How could I ever stay mad at you, delicious little Apple Jack?
Yeah, I thought you might. I wrote about it for one of my Friday Food Freak Out columns when the recall was announced, and just about every other food writer out there used the opportunity to take a couple swipes at Tony the Tiger, too. It was big news. For about 15 minutes.
Even as the story was being reported, though, there was one big fact missing from every single piece written about the recall: what exactly it was that was causing your Froot Loops to stink. Was it rotten Froot in the Loops? A dead beaver caught in the assembly line? Were Snap, Crackle and Pop sneaking into the production facility late at night, all hopped up on crystal meth and Red Bull, and pooping rainbows into the Honey Smacks (because that's what magical cereal elves do when they're pissed off)?
Kellogg's claimed they were looking into it, but no one was actually saying what had gone wrong. Until now.
On July 12, the Environmental Working Group (a non-profit working to protect folks from things like poison breakfast cereal) reported that they'd learned from Kellogg's that the stank-creating product in question was actually methylnaphthalene. Here's what the EWG has to say about the stuff:
"Methylnaphthalene, which comes in two forms, is a component of crude oil and coal tar and may also be formed "as a pyrolytic byproduct from the combustion of tobacco, wood, petroleum-based fuels and coal," according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The petroleum-based compound is produced in enormous quantities in the United States, and health agencies know very little about its safety, EWG scientists have learned...'What little we do know about the history of this chemical is checkered at best,' said EWG senior scientist Dave Andrews. 'Millions of pounds are produced every year, and this chemical is turning up in the packaging for popular cereals marketed toward children. I think it's important for federal public health agencies like the EPA and FDA to know everything there is to know about the possible risks this fossil fuel could pose to people's health.'"
So that's just awesome, right? Coal tar and mysterious petroleum byproducts being used to manufacture cereal bags is precisely the kind of thing that was promised by all those "Look What The Future Will Bring!" film strips they made us watch back in grade school, a better-living-through-chemistry victory for oil companies and food chemists everywhere. Sure, it's not a jet pack, but being able to turn dead dinosaurs into Froot Loops box liners that'll cause explosive diarrhea in consumers? That's what I call progress!
Oh, but wait. One thing missing from this report (which has already been picked up by sites like SFGate and Eater.com) is what, exactly, this methylnaphthalene was doing in the liners in the first place, or what was wrong with this particular batch of liners that they smelled bad enough to make people sick. I mean, if methylnaphthalene is always used to make the liners for Kellogg's cereal boxes then why haven't people been getting sick forever? Or if it's used for all liners, why was it only certain cereals that were recalled?
If the thought of having petroleum products in your food grosses you out, then you should probably just stop eating, period. All sorts of food additives and packaging are made from petrochemical products and, to extend the oil chain just a little bit further, is also pretty fucking important in the production of the raw materials for even the purest and most natural foods (what, you think those vegetables just jump out of the ground and walk to the Whole Foods all by themselves?). But what confuses me is how methylnaphthalene can make some people sick and some cereal stink while not affecting other people or products. And until Kellogg's comes through with a satisfactory answer, I guess I'll be sticking with donuts for breakfast.