Toxic food trend continues to worry US public

August 28, 2007

August 1, 2007, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning, urging consumers to avoid certain brands of French Cut Green Beans in 14.5-ounce cans manufactured by Lakeside Foods Inc, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin because the product may not have been processed sufficiently to eliminate the potential for botulism toxin. A month earlier in July 2007 there was a recall of canned meat products and dog food due to the same poisonous substance, botulism, which according to the FDA can produce such symptoms as general weakness, dizziness, difficulty breathing and double vision. While statistics deny there's been an actual increase, the public perception of a "trend" in food recalls may have started in 2006 when traces of the E. coli virus were found in packaged spinach. These recent instances in food recalls due to poisonous chemicals make U.S. consumers wonder, 'Why does this keep happening"' and 'What can be done to prevent it from happening again"' Interestingly, this is not just a new issue resulting from a more global economy and mass-produced, processed foods. Internationally renowned food expert Morton Satin shows how these outbreaks because of unclean, adulterated food have affected society throughout history. In the engrossing new book DEATH IN THE POT: THE IMPACT OF FOOD POISONING ON HISTORY (Prometheus Books, $24), Satin documents events both tragic and bizarre in regards to food poisoning and how it affects us all.

Satin first takes his readers back in time to explore some of the most interesting and well-documented health threats of all time. In the fifth century B.C.E., the great plague of Athens, probably caused by contaminated cereals, led to the defeat of the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War. In the prescientific Middle Ages, illnesses resulting from contaminated food were often attributed to the wrath of God or malevolent spirits. Heavily infectious ergot induced a spasmodic muscle condition, which the Church named "St. Anthony's Fire" and interpreted as retribution by God on heretics. Similarly, in seventeenth-century America the hallucinogenic symptoms of moldy grain were thought by Puritans to be signs of witchcraft. Even the madness of King George III, which played a role in the American Revolution, may have been induced by accidental arsenic poisoning.

In the twentieth century, Satin recounts the efforts of modern industrial societies to make food safer; in some cases these efforts were heroic. For example, in the early days of the Food and Drug Administration a "Poison Squad" was formed, consisting of young scientists who willingly acted as guinea pigs to test the toxic effects of chemical additives. Today, the government has focused on the hazards of food bioterrorism. He also details one of the first events to make E. coli a term that everyone now associates with food poisoning and disease. In 1993 the food chain Jack in the Box decided to cook their hamburgers at a lower temperature, resulting in meat contaminated with E. coli. More recently in 2006, the bacteria was found in packaged spinach which in turn initiated numerous food-safety programs that are continually working to ensure that the food eaten by millions of people is healthy and safe.

Satin ends by describing measures taken to protect the public from intentional and unintentional poisoning, and recounting recent poisoning incidents. A fascinating glimpse into history from a unique angle and an authoritative reference work on food safety, DEATH IN THE POT is entertaining and informative reading for laypersons and experts in food technology and public health.

Prometheus Books

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