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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 6th June

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think twice before putting a bag of salad leaves in my shopping trolley, yesterday. The story of the public reaction to the E.coli outbreak in Germany follows from yesterday’s entry about how the media can do harm by spreading fear.

I don’t speak German so I have no way of knowing exactly what the Hamburg Institute for Hygiene and the Environment said but, clearly, it was enough for the media to point the finger at Spanish cucumbers and cause not just a lot of unnecessary fear to the general public but, also, significant economic harm to Spain. It’s bad enough that, within a couple of days, cucumbers, Spanish or otherwise, were eliminated as the cause. It’s even worse that, at the time of writing, no trace of the particular strain of E.coli has been found on the beansprouts that replaced cucumbers as the alleged source.

It’s just as bad that reporting of speculation as fact has caused so much disruption. But the prize for reckless reporting has to go to the Daily Star which headlined its story with ‘Terrorists 'spreading killer bug'’. Here’s how it works. Scientists are, generally, sceptical about everything including their own work. Ask a scientist if today is Monday and he should fight back the impulse to say that whilst there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is Monday there is a need for further research before a firm conclusion can be reached.

So, a reporter only has to ask a scientist if terrorists might be involved and the scientist will say that whilst there is absolutely no indication of any terrorist involvement it cannot be completely ruled out. Then the reporter just drops the bit about ‘absolutely no indication’ and reports ‘THE deadly E.coli outbreak could have been spread by terrorists, say doctors.’  

The doubts about the safety of eating raw salad vegetables demonstrate how much of everyday life relies on trusting other people to do it right.

Atropa belladonna green berries

The whole business reminded me of a conversation a few years ago with a pea farmer. We said that he, sometimes, found Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, growing amongst his pea plants. Harvest time for the peas coincides with the time when the berries of the Atropa belladonna have formed but not ripened. In look, size and texture they could be mistaken for peas. The farmer said that, once harvested it was impossible to separate deadly nightshade berries from peas.

For that reason, he carefully walked all of his pea fields the day before harvesting pulling out any Atropa belladonna bushes he found.

It’s only because we can put our trust in growers to make a proper assessment of the risks involved in the food they produce and deal with those risks that we can, generally, fill our shopping trolleys without a second thought. Every now and then something comes along to make us aware of the potential for harm but we need to keep it in balance. The German outbreak of E.coli poisoning is devastating for those involved, and we still don’t know if raw vegetables of some sort have caused it, but the total number of cases is only a tiny fraction of the number of people who have eaten raw vegetables in the past month or so.

So, the only thing to worry about when you pick up your lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes from the supermarket shelves is whether we’ll get some summer weather to go with the summer food.