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An Oral History of the CDC Putting Ticks on a Muffin

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s infamous poppy seed muffin tweet.

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The internet collectively gagged when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defiled a beloved breakfast food with ticks this month.

The tweet came from the CDC’s official account, and warned people to keep an eye out for the miniscule pests by comparing them to the size of poppy seeds.

I thought the tweet was good and cool, but many were apparently upset by it.

“The CDC may have ruined poppyseed muffins forever with gross tick photo,” wrote the Huffington Post. “For some reason the Center for Disease Control wants to ruin poppy seed muffins for you,” said Mashable. BuzzFeed dramatically declared that “poppy seeds are cancelled.”

Several days later, the CDC tweeted an apology:

“For those people who were sincerely bothered, we’re sorry,” Anna Perea, a CDC policy and communications lead for the Bacterial Diseases Branch of the Division of Vector-borne Diseases, told me over the phone.

Perea said the tweet was part of Lyme Disease Awareness Month, which aims to educate Americans about the risks associated with tick bites, and how to avoid them. Out of all the vectorborne illnesses reported in the United States, Lyme disease is the most common—roughly 30,000 cases per year, which still doesn’t reflect the total number of diagnoses—according to the agency. “Vectorborne” refers to diseases that are transmitted through ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, and other infected arthropod species.

Tick season ramps up between April and September, and remains prevalent so long as ground temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re spending time in tick country, a full-body check and a shower are necessary after returning indoors.

“The ticks most responsible for biting people—and transmitting bacteria for Lyme disease—are really small,” Perea added. “The size of poppy seed.”

Perea told me the backlash was “completely surprising. But a very pleasant surprise.” And, believe it or not, the CDC isn’t the first to put ticks on food.

The idea, Perea said, originally hatched several years ago by Thomas Mather, a professor and tick ecology researcher at the University of Rhode Island. Mather, who’s also known as "The Tick Guy” (obviously), runs the university’s TickEncounter Resource Center, which demonstrates the smallness of ticks by placing them on a poppy seed bagel. The center recommends schools do this as a fun learning exercise for kids.

“If you’re trying to improve public health and reach the public, you need to go where they are,” Perea said. “And social media is where a lot of people spend their time.”

The photo itself was taken in the CDC’s entomology lab in Colorado, where the agency breeds ticks for the research of disease transmission and repellents. Using tiny forceps, an entomologist there placed five ticks on the poppy seed muffin. After everything was over, they were euthanized in alcohol and put into a freezer.

“I myself made the poppy seed muffin,” Perea told me. “Eleven were fed to my family, and one I took to work.”

And for anyone who wants to know, they were a box mix.