BOSTON -- Sure, it's scary to find poisonous black widow spiders on store-bought grapes. But food safety specialists and growers say it's less frightening than the alternative: a return to harsher pesticides.
At least three people found black widow spiders on bunches of red seedless grapes from California purchased recently at separate Shaw's supermarkets in suburbs west of Boston. Black widows are the most dangerous type of spider in the United States, though their bites - while extremely painful - are not often fatal because the venom is delivered in tiny doses.
Grape growers and grocers say their efforts to use fewer or softer chemicals are to blame for more bugs reaching consumers.
"As a result of the growers' efforts to reduce the use of pesticides in the industry, the possibility of finding an insect or spider exists," Shaw's supermarkets said in a statement.
Pesticides are used to help crop production and yield by preventing fungal invasion, insect damage and the growth of unwanted plants - all of which can contaminate crops. However, since some chemicals have been shown to contribute to such health problems as cancer and birth defects, the use of pesticides is heavily regulated by the federal government.
Jim Howard, a spokesman for the California Table Grape Commission, said grape growers have led the produce industry over the past 20 years in reducing the use of pesticides.
"With that reduction comes an increase in all sorts of insects that are found in the fields," he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there hasn't been one particular law or change in regulation that would make way for more bugs reaching grocery stores and consumers. Rather, it is a gradual reduction or changes to individual chemicals that could be having an effect, said EPA spokesman David Deegan, who noted pesticides are used even on organic foods.
Certainly, though, finding a beetle does not evoke the same response as the discovery of a poisonous spider. Howard said the black widows were a rare find, with only a handful reported among 800 million bags of grapes shipped every year.
Food safety experts say an occasional beetle or weevil or spider is a reasonable price to pay for safer foods.
"We're seeing four or five people coming across spiders in their grapes, but we're seeing a lot less people being exposed to greater use of pesticides ... and long-term health hazards," said Paul Tierney, director of the state's Food Protection Program in the Department of Public Health. "What is the greater good here?"
Still, Tierney said the scary discoveries serve as a reminder to consumers to carefully inspect and wash produce.
"As consumers we have to learn not to assume that everything is perfect," he said.
That was a lesson Teri Muccini and her family learned the hard way.
Muccini said her husband found a quarter-sized black widow on their grapes - and immediately killed the bug. She said she doesn't know much about pesticides, but she says something should be done to ensure the dangerous spiders don't reach consumers.
"Most people wash their grapes before they eat them anyway, so if there's something that would kill them, use it," said Muccini, of Upton. "It was kind of scary to see a spider that big and ugly and poisonous."
Dan Mott, editor of the Journal of Arachnology and chairman of the biology and chemistry department at Texas A&M International University, said he did not think changes in pesticides would have a marked effect on the black widows.
"I'd hate to think we'd discourage people to keep them from using pesticide, because that's a good thing," he said. "Black widows just aren't a problem for us, generally."
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