A friend recently told me that her boss, an Orthodox Jew, could not eat M&M’s due to their shells being coated with beetle juice. Restricting bug intake doesn’t seem extraordinary considering Talmudic law (which might be more discerning than federal food regulations but who knows), but what about the accusation that insects are being used to make the candy coating that melts in your mouth, not in your hand? –Michael Chelm, Los Angeles

You didn’t get the whole story, friend. The rumor is that the coating is made from ground-up lac beetle shells, the same beetles used to make a well-known floor coating. So that’s why M&M’s don’t melt in your hand–they paint ’em with shellac! Very funny, but like most such legends, not true. The folks at M&M/Mars say the coating is a mixture of sugar and corn syrup that is buffed to a high sheen by tumbling the M&M’s together during manufacture. The story about the beetles has been passed around quite a bit, though. It turned up in 1991 in a kids’ book called Kids Can Save the Animals; after a little prodding from M&M/Mars the publisher admitted having goofed. (Apparently some candies similar to M&M’s do use a bug-based confectioner’s glaze.) Although M&M’s aren’t certified as kosher, a company spokesman says, “to the best of our knowledge they would be accepted under kosher dietary laws.” That may not be good enough for an Orthodox Jew, but it’s good enough for me.


Cecil, you’re a hopeless romantic. Sure, it makes sense that if only 360 million people have ever had nine-digit Social Security numbers, it’ll take 639 million more before we run out [August 14]. But when did logic ever have anything to do with the federal government? One major use of Social Security numbers is for taxpayer and employer identification–and what with corporations, trusts, partnerships, not-for-profits, and various other obscure business enterprises, there are a lot more taxpayers and employers than Social Security registrants. So what’s the REAL straight dope? Is D(uplication)-Day right around the corner? –Harry Doakes, Portland, Oregon

Don’t be a mope. Only people can get Social Security numbers, not corporations. When businesses file taxes they have to use what is variously known as a taxpayer or employer ID number. Like the SS number, it has nine digits, but it’s grouped differently–00-0000000 versus 000-00-0000. You may say a hyphen is a pretty frail bulwark against national chaos should a significant fraction of taxpayer ID numbers duplicate Social Security numbers (as indeed has probably occurred), but the folks at the Social Security Administration basically say, hey, not my problem–we don’t issue taxpayer ID numbers, the IRS does. A pretty cavalier attitude, but look at the bright side. They might accidentally send you the tax-refund check intended for IBM.

One more thing. It occurs to me I may have been too hasty in describing the last six digits of the Social Security number as “simply a serial number.” Whatever may be said about Uncle Sam being logical, nothing involving the federal government is simple. The fourth and fifth digits of the SS number are what’s known as the “group number.” For reasons that are perverse even by government standards, SS numbers for a given state are issued in this order: first all those having odd group code numbers from 01 to 09, then even numbers from 10 to 98, then even numbers from 02 to 08, and finally odd numbers from 11 to 99. According to one of my less reputable sources, all numbers issued before 1965 are either odd numbers between 01 and 09 or even numbers between 10 and 98.

I’m told the purpose of this rigamarole is so some sharp-eyed sleuth at SS HQ can look at a Social Security number and say, “Ha! Group number 99 from the state of Maine! We haven’t issued them yet–this number is a fake!” Seems to me it would be just as easy to look the thing up in the Big Book of Issued Numbers, but I guess if you’re a federal bureaucrat you have to cook up schemes like this to justify your appropriation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.