Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thrips in Strawberries: Serious Concern, or Hyperbole?

If you have a short attention span, skip to the end of this post for the video that illustrates the problem.

Whenever insect problems come up, there are those who say that this is just extremist ignorant hysteria; that the alleged insects aren't there at all, or that they are so small as to be halachically irrelevant.

The irony of this is that often, these debates do, indeed, expose ignorance and hysteria, but this is often on the part of the burcherers. (Burcherin: n;, Yiddish. Boor'-tche-rin. Ignorant grousing by people who believe today what they believed yesterday, and that's that, often associated with boorishness.)

I, too, once fell victim to this attitude. I know exactly what aphids look like, having seen them in all colors and under all different light situations. When, twenty five years ago, word spread that fresh broccoli tended to be infested with aphids, I went to the store and bought a bunch of fresh broccoli. I meticulously checked it and found nothing. I decided that the reports were just the result of the overheated imagination of some urban frummies who didn't know what they were talking about, and I tossed the picked-over broccoli into the garbage. I then glanced down and saw twenty or thirty aphids, precisely the color and the size of the individual broccoli florets, crawling down my shirt.

I used to enjoy Mulberries. But I later learned that if you breathe on them, the warmth and CO2 will brings hosts of thrips out. The mulberries, so clean and quiet, suddenly look like a kicked-over anthill. Unfortunately, the problem is present in any aggregate fruit which comprise drupelets-- e.g., raspberries. And Wild Black Cherries-- not the kind you get in the store, the originals; . I once made a drink out of the cherries from a tree near my yeshiva. After a night in the refrigerator, I was treated to the sight of an entire layer of fruit maggots at the top of the pitcher. Bug juice indeed. Thrips, in particular, have recently developed real resistance to insecticides... Ahh, for the good old days of DDT....

And dried fruit: did you know that Kashrus organizations deal with insects in dried fruit like the US military deals with gays? DADT. The hechsher only tells you that no triefeh ingredients were mixed into the fruit. But, did fruit flies lay eggs on them while they were drying? Are there larder beetles? Or merchant beetles? Or date stone beetles? When my mother insisted on checking the inside of dates before eating them, I thought this was excessive. Until she showed me a beetle scurrying off of the pit. (I am told, however, that domestic pitted dates do not require examination.)

As to the argument 'but we've been eating strawberries for millennia, and if they were kosher for our grandparents, they're kosher for us," this is indeed a valid point. The Ribbono Shel Olam wouldn't have allowed wholesale achilas davar ha'asur; I heard this point from Rav Rudderman when the teshuvos about Tuna were printed. However, the thrip problem happens to be of recent origin, and simply was not a factor in the past. Some thrips were confined to Asia but migrated westward in recent years-- Some were limited to specific areas within North America but have spread to the entire continent and to Europe in recent years-- And in many cases, what was, in the past, an occasional problem, has become epidemic, and, perhaps, endemic--

And there is the svara of "lo nitna torah le'malachei hashareis." Let's say that thrips always existed, and our ancestors simply were unaware of them. For them, then, they were halachicly irrelevant, and no more assur than the protists that we eat, drink, and inhale. Now, however, that these thrips have been publicized, and, after simple instruction in method, can be seen, they become assur. Yoseif da'as, yoseif mach'ov.

If you are concerned about healthy foods becoming unavailable, remember two things:
First, there's the Shibuta Rule (Chulin 109b): there are always kosher alternatives available. But you have to do the research. For example, broccoli seed sprouts are far more beneficial than broccoli itself You just have to buy them and sprout them yourself. Second, nobody complained when the salmonella scare made plum tomatoes unavailable for a month. You deal with reality and move on.

Here is an excellent video that illustrates the problem with strawberries.


  1. There is one issue with insect infestations that seems to have slipped under the radar. Edible figs are pollinated exclusively by specific wasps, who simultaneously lay eggs in the figs [see the wikipedia article on figs]. I assume this has been mai'kadmas d'na unless a massive evolutionary change has occured.

    Thus, figs should be prima facie osur to eat - and yet they are one of the shiva minim. Ela mai, there may be a "Shoretz al Ha'aretz" heter - but who is somaich on that today?

  2. Well, not all figs are pollinated the same way. But that doesn't really address the issue. My guess is that they decompose before the fig ripens. I'm still checking, though.
    Here is a fascinating site on the topic:

  3. By the way, I don't think the ahl ha'aretz thing works here, since the figs are mechubar lekarka. That only helps if they developed in a fruit that was talush and never walked out.

  4. A careful reading of wikipedia and the site you quoted seems to contradict your "...not all figs are pollinated the same way." The relevant quote on figweb is:

    ... for fig trees are completely dependant on tiny wasps, a couple of millimeters long, for their propagation and survival. These fig wasps are the sole pollinators of fig trees and in turn, fig wasps can breed nowhere else but inside figs, a relationship that is a classic example of an obligate mutualism (neither party can survive without the other) that has evolved over the last 60 or so million years.

  5. First: The source for my comment about shoreitz is YD 84:6.

    Second: I'm thinking that if the wasp cannot exist without the fig, and the fig cannot exist without the wasp, then it could be that it is muttar, because the wasp is bateil to the fig by its very nature. This, of course, is base speculation, until I have a tzushtell.

    Third: regarding the types of figs:
    Note, please, that there are two types of parthenocarpic figs. Parthenocarpic, from the Latin Parthenos, Virgin, like in the Parthenon. No pollinators needed.

    Fig Types

    Four distinct horticultural types of figs are described in this publication.

    Caprifig. The Caprifig produces a small non-edible fruit; however, the flowers inside the Caprifig fruit produce pollen. This pollen is essential for fertilizing fruit of the Smyrna and San Pedro types. The pollen is transported from the Caprifig to the pollen-sterile types by a Blastophaga wasp. Commercial growers hang baskets of Blastophaga-infested Caprifigs so that the wasps can effectively fertilize the fruit. Caprifigs were grown successfully at Del Rio before 1901.

    Smyrna. The Smyma fig varieties produce large edible fruit with true seeds. The Blastophaga wasp and Caprifigs are required for normal fruit development. If this fertilization process does not occur, fruit will not develop properly and will fall from the tree. Smyrna-type figs are commonly sold as dried figs.

    San Pedro. These figs can bear two crops of fruit in one season--one crop on last season's growth and a second crop on current growth. The first crop, called the Breba crop, is parthenocarpic and does not require pollination. Fruit of the second crop is the Smyrna type and requires pollination from the Caprifig. Breba produces early in the spring on last season's wood. However, the second crop of the Smyrna type may fail to set because of lack of pollination from Blastophaga and Caprifig. This second crop fruit drop discourages homeowners.

    Common Fig. These figs develop parthenocarpically without pollination and are by far the most prevalent fig grown in Texas. The fruit does not have true seeds and is primarily produced on current season wood. Varieties recommended for Texas are of common fig type.

  6. I wasn't referring to the 'al ha'aretz' heter but to the 'shoretz' heter - ayin Y.D. 84:6. The chumrah I was referring to was the one brought in the Shach s.k. 19.

    It is amazing that there still remain enough lacunae in the web of overlapping and oft self-contradictory chumrot that we can survive. As Reb Yaakov is reputed to have said (free translation from the Yiddish): "They don't want to let us eat."

    BTW, from the next s'if (if I remember correctly) you find that if you keep dried figs or dates for over a year from the date (not a pun) of picking - in a sealed container of course, there should be no problem. However, there are those who claim that the 12 month heter does not apply in sealed containers, or refrigerators, or with preservatives, etc. These are the kind of "it must be ossur, let's come up with a reason why" arguments that make simple ba'alei batim like me wonder if these people need a "shara lei morei."

  7. Interesting point on your reference to the common fig. If they reproduce primarily on this season's wood, they are not 'giz'o machlif' and are a borai pri ha'adamah.

  8. An answer to the bug question about figs may be found in this article:

  9. That is a fascinating article! But there's no way I can believe that only parthenocarpic figs are kosher, no how, no way. I still think that the dead wasps melt away. I really don't think they remain intact as the fig grows around them.

  10. It's not the dead wasps that are the problem: it's the larvae. Those obviously survive or there wouldn't be any more mamma and papa wasps.

    An alternative solution is that by the time the fig is eaten, the larva have all figged out, metamorphized to adults and flown away, but for that to be true the fig would have to be moth-eaten (forgive the change of genus) indeed.