Pantry Moths in Your Lunch? A Super-Gross Reason to Avoid Processed Supermarket Food

You’ll be shocked how the disgusting pantry moths and their larvae get into your food.

The Indian Meal Moth is one of the most common pantry moths found in food. (Photo: Nature's Images/Getty Images)

Oct 10, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

If you’ve opened the pantry door or a bag of rice and had a moth fly in your face, you may have wondered: How did the bug get in there?

Sarah Bryce asked herself that question when she found a pantry moth larva burrowed into a banana she had picked up to eat, before discovering dozens more inside packages of dry food in the cupboard of her Boston apartment.

“We were so disgusted,” Bryce remembers. “We just started pitching stuff. They were honestly in everything—inside cardboard boxes, and inside the plastic bags inside the boxes.”

After throwing away all her dry food except for a few items—“probably $100 worth”—Bryce bleached the cupboard and hoped she’d solved the problem. But no. A day later, while pulling something down from the cupboard, she looked up and saw, in a crack in the ceiling, what looked like insect pupa. Disgusted again and motivated to drive the unwanted pests from her home, Bryce set out to learn everything she could about the lifecycles of pantry moths, and how they—and their eggs—got in her food.

What she found would be perhaps the most disgusting revelation of all: that she’d most likely purchased the affected products from the supermarket with the pests and their eggs already living there.

But moths show up in food even before the supermarket, says Phil LaQuaglia, owner of Greenhouse Pest Management, an organic exterminating company in Acworth, Georgia. LaQuaglia, who responds weekly to calls about pantry moth infestations in homes and restaurants, says the pests usually enter the packaged food in one of the multiple stops between the farm and the supermarket.

“If we shop a big company, there are a lot of buildings between the farms and Whole Foods—processing facility to a storage facility to a storefront,” he says. “Any of these can be contaminated.”

LaQuaglia adds that moths are almost exclusively attracted to dry, processed foods, like bread crumbs, bleached flour, some granola bars, cake mix, or pet food. Products that originate in countries outside the United States are especially susceptible to infestation because of fewer food safety laws. For instance, the Indian Meal Moth, the most common pantry pest, originated in India, where the safety standards are considerably lower.

What can consumers do to prevent pantry moths? Certainly, avoiding processed food that has been stored in multiple locations before reaching the store shelf cuts down on the likelihood of an infestation, he says. Buying local, inspecting product packaging for holes before purchase, and storing certain foods in the freezer after purchase can also help stop infestations before they start.

“If you can look at the lineage of where your products come from, it definitely helps,” he says. “Buying in the states will help reduce the opportunities for bringing in the moths and their babies because at least we have a process for protecting the consumers.”

Ironically, organic foods carry a higher probability of attracting pantry moths because of the absence of pesticides.

LaQuaglia says that if you see evidence of pantry moths or larvae, the first step in removing the problem is to check all food—especially processed and organic foods—for moths or larvae, immediately disposing of any infested food. If larvae are present, you’ll see silver cocoons. Then, an exterminator will release a pheromone in the pantry to interrupt the reproduction cycle of any remaining moths.

Bryce recently installed a pheromone strip and is currently waiting to see whether it is effective in eliminating the remaining moths. Even if she doesn’t see a moth for a while—and she’s seen “between 30 and 50 moths”—the nurse says her infestation is already impacting everyday activities she used to take for granted.

“I will never look at food in the pantry the same way again,” she says. “I don’t know when I’ll be ready to buy some of these things again at the grocery store. I hate these damn things. I hate them.”

Does knowing that pantry moths enter our food before we purchase it impact what food you buy, and where?