Food Stuff: Smuts, Blotches and Rots – and Shellac

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For reasons I won’t bore you with, I recently typed “Karnal Bunt” into Google followed shortly thereafter by “smut.”  “Smut” comes from the German for “dirt” and refers to a collection of revolting plant diseases.

Smuts are fungi.  I know this because my Googling sent me straight from “Karnal Bunt” to “corn smut” to a place where I could build my own “fungi portal.”   There are many kinds of smut, all of which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture.  That is a sentence I never expected to type.  There is the aforementioned “corn smut” and also “sugarcane smut” and the “common smut” and the “loose smut“.  Loose smut kills barley, along with reputations.

Smuts are in the same family as rusts and presumably blights.  A rust is a dark smut.  There is cedar apple rust and white pine blister rust and wheat rust and daylily rust.

Blights are a bummer.  The chestnut blight destroyed one of the stateliest American trees.  And there’s a blight (or smut, I’m not sure) that causes Sudden Oak Death.  Fire blight kills pears.  Water mold caused the famous Irish Potato Blight.  Potatoes also get something called “bacterial wilt” and something else called “soft rot” and something else called “blackleg.” Potatoes can get “ring rot” and “pink eye” and “common scab” and “zebra chip.”  The zebra chip diseases gives potato chips black lines like a zebra.

Many plant diseases sound like they were dreamed up around a peat fire in a thatched hut somewhere on the MacGilliycuddy Reeks or the Heptonstall Slacks.  Plants get blotches, cankers and galls. Apples get fruit blotch and twig canker.  Caneberries get leafy gall.  There’s a disease called the “boysenberry decline.”   There’s something called “black speck”.  Citrus fruits get the “blast” and “damping-off” and the dreaded “sooty blotch.”

Plants also get viruses.  There’s “bud union crease” and “crinkly leaf” and “navel infectious mottling.”  Plants can spread contagious pathogens — the “fatal yellows” or the “rumple of lemon fruit.”  Oranges get sunburn. Lettuce get stunt. Peanuts get scorch.

No problem, you say.  I will just buy my produce at a supermarket to be sure I’m not eating wilts or blotches or rots.

But then you might be eating bug secretions.  This goes for vegetarians or vegans, too.

That’s because grocers can wax their fruit and vegetables with something called “food grade shellac.”  When slathered on candy it’s called “confectioner’s glaze.”  Shellac comes out of the glands of the female lac bug.  You see it most frequently on apples.   Sometimes it contains crushed insects.  It is exactly the same stuff you use to polish a wood floor.


Kim Egan is Partner in the firm DLA Piper LLP

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