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The history of food poisoning

Deborah Blum with an excellent article on the history of food poisoning:

… Since that time, really dangerous food—the term food poisoning, even—has tended to refer to bacterial contamination issues rather than toxic-chemical contamination. Still, the public continues to worry about pesticide residues, preservatives, and food dyes—the FDA recently investigated concerns that food dyes might contribute to attention-deficit disorders. But thanks to the work of Wiley, his valiant poison squads, and a host of other crusaders, we don’t fear being killed by arsenic-dyed candy or formaldehyde-improved milk, as we once did.

On the other hand, this has not been a good decade for those who fear bacterial food poisoning. Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks—in beef, eggs, sprouts, and nut products—have plagued the nation’s food supply. A 2007 peanut product recall swept through forty-seven states, where the item sickened more than six hundred people; in 2008 and 2009, bacteria-contaminated peanut butter may have killed nine people and sickened more than seven hundred in the United States; in April 2011, Canadian investigators reported the suspected contamination of walnuts by the lethal bacterial variant E. coli 0157:H7 had killed one person and sickened another thirteen.

Recently, in response to such outbreaks, the federal government passed another law, the Food Safety Modernization Act, in an attempt to break this newest cycle of food poisoning. In the recently passed budget, the law is not fully funded, but even with full funding, one can make an easy prediction. We’ve been trying to regulate food poisoning out of existence since Biblical times. We’ve reduced it; we’ve saved countless lives by doing so. But we’ll never really erase it from our history. Wiley, Accum, and even the Sanskrit scribes could have told you why: food, in all its chemical complications and possibilities, remains the most dangerous substance we will ever eat.

Interested in learning more? Check out Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. Also, try Upton Sinclair’s horrifying 1906 novel about the Chicago meat-packing industry, The Jungle.

Deborah Blum is the author of Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death and The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

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