Poisoned food: Eaters beware

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Flickr user: rob_rob2001

The modern world is filled with people who gratefully and ravenously eat anything. In fact, much of history is fundamentally a search for secure sources of food. Governments may well declare "food safety" among their primary missions, yet some of their citizens will nonetheless sicken and die. Many more will fret, needlessly, or worse, make themselves unhealthy and die young because they followed the latest food fad.

And what a moment it is for the faddists — of all stripes.

In The New York Times recently, Dean Ornish weighs in (yet again) on the evils of meat, because, you know, he's a best-selling doctor who wants to convert his readers into vegetarians. For its part, the Wall Street Journal brought in a nutritionist to crow about the benefits of a paleo diet. An entire, free-standing section in the Journal debated the pros and cons of salt — not realizing apparently that both sides actually agree that salt is good for you, but sodium-laced industrial food isn't.

Then there is the old eggs/cholesterol debate: In the latest about-face, eggs are once again seen as nutritious, not harmful. High cholesterol? Comes from your liver, not your food.

The other recent food scare involves the level of arsenic in wine. The cheaper the wine, the higher the arsenic levels, according to the media, which picked up the story with glee. More glee than solid science, it turned out.

The story originated with a commercial food-testing lab in Denver that was trying to drum up some wine industry business. “Look at all the arsenic in these cheap wines!” Kevin Hicks of BeverageGrades exclaimed in a lawsuit he filed against local wineries. The CBS affiliate in San Francisco picked up the story and promptly bungled the math as well as the politics.

Arsenic isn't exactly healthy, but there are no EPA arsenic standards for wine. The EPA standard for arsenic in drinking water is ten parts per billion; that's 10 blades of grass on a football field, 10 drops of water in an Olympic swimming pool. You'd die of alcohol poisoning before you consumed an unsafe amount of Chardonnay.

So in the best tradition of investigative journalism, let's take a brief look back at the whole question of food poisoning. Scary, but fortunately quite rare.

Dr. Morton Satin, a molecular biologist credited with inventing gluten-free bread while he was director of the United Nations global food program, is also the author of Death in the Pot, published in 2008. The book confirms what we pretty much knew: Food can kill you or make you crazy.

We learn from Satin that the “madness of King George III” was probably due to arsenic poisoning. The author suggests that ingesting moldy grain could have been responsible. Indeed the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which we know as ergot, can produce hallucinogenic symptoms as well as side effects (such as “St. Vitus Fire” or epilepsy) often ascribed to witchcraft.

Outbreaks of mass hysteria, wherever they were recorded, could have been nothing more than ergot poisoning. As recently as 1951, in Pont-St.-Esprit in southern France, the village baker used flour contaminated with ergot (not, as postulated, mercury) to make his baguettes. Le pain maudit sickened hundreds (some of whom leapt from windows and reported visions) and killed four.

Reliable tests for arsenic didn’t come on line until the second half of the 19th Century. Even so, in 1937, the Tennessee company, Masengill, produced a drug called Elixir Sulfanilamide to combat streptococcal infections. The active ingredient was dissolved in a raspberry-flavored diethylene glycol (also known as antifreeze) and sold without a prescription. Dozens of people, many of them children, died. The public outrage that followed led to the creation of the US Food & Drug Administration, and with it, all those handy parts-per-billion regulations.

In the 13th century agriculture was revolutionized by what we now think of as the "modern" (moldboard) plow. The invention boosted production by aerating the soil and allowing for more secure germination of grains. The population of Western Europe doubled as a result.

Alas, a century of wars, unusual frosts and plagues followed and the population plunged again. Some centuries later, the phytophthora infestans fungus devastated the Irish potato crop; in the ensuing famine, Ireland's population fell from eight to five million people, and the swarm of Irish immigrants had an enormous impact on the rest of the world.

By the mid-19th century, food preservation methods included the process we now call canning which, if done improperly, can lead to fatal outcomes. Badly sealed cans poisoned a British expedition that had set out to discover the elusive Northwest Passage. There were no survivors.

Food dangers are not a thing of the past. As recently as 2001, a number of rat-poisoning incidents began to surface in China. There's a back story involving the British East India Company and its promotion of opium. The deep-water harbor of Hong Kong, then a sleepy island of fisherman, became ground zero. Humiliated by the British, the Chinese retaliated by poisoning Hong Kong's entire bread supply (which was consumed only by non-Chinese residents) with arsenic. Fortunately, the perpetrator got the dose wrong, and very few victims died.

In 1986, methanol was discovered in French wines; 25 people died. Methanol-laced whiskey killed 80 Kenyans in 1998. In 2001, thousands of Spaniards were sickened and nearly 2,000 died after consuming contaminated rapeseed oil.

Let's not forget the ever-present danger from fugu, Japan’s poisonous puffer fish, and from the bacteria E. coli, which turned up in the Jack In the Box cheeseburger that killed young Tacoman Michael James in 1993. (Seattle attorney Bill Marler successfully litigated the suit for damages.) Thirteen years later, another E. coli outbreak, this time traced to a package of fresh spinach, finally prompted an overhaul of food safety laws in the US.

And then there was Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, the eastern Oregon commune leader whose deputy, a woman named Ma Anand Sheela, schemed to contaminate neighbors with salmonella she ordered through the mail. (Who knew?) Freeze-dried salmonella disks were duly delivered. The 450 townspeople who were poisoned included to Wasco County commissioners leery of the Bagwan's politics. Everyone survived, but two women went to prison in what remains, after 30 years, the most disruptive bio-terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

We could go on, but suffice it to say: Beware what you eat. And not just because it makes your butt (or your gut) look big.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).