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10 Worst Food Contamination Incidents Ever

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Whether the cause is willful deception or simply a tragic mistake, contaminated food is a very real and present danger – and one that can have deadly consequences.

Incidents range from the inclusion of nasty ingredients to the addition of hazardous substances that should never have entered human digestive systems. For example, in the wake of the recent discovery of horse DNA in European beef products, concerns have been raised over the potential ingestion of dangerous drugs such as phenylbutazone, which is an anti-inflammatory often used on horses to relieve pain and high temperatures.

From arsenic-tainted milk to mercury-poisoned fish, these are 10 of the most shocking and devastating food contamination cases in history.

10. Toxic Oil Syndrome – Spain (1981)

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In 1981, a disease known as “toxic oil syndrome” broke out in Spain that was caused by contaminated cooking oil. The consequences were serious, with the illness leading to the deaths of over 600 people. In response to the crisis, the Spanish government offered free olive oil in exchange for the hazardous oil.

The contamination is believed to have occurred when low-cost industrial colza oil from France was imported into the country. The colza oil was then refined and sold by street vendors as olive oil. Symptoms of the disease resembled a lung infection that weakened immune systems and was accompanied by skin problems. The condition was resistant to antibiotics, and there are numerous conspiracy theories associated with the case – all of which has added to its notoriety.

9. Arsenic-Contaminated Beer – England (1900)

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In 1900, a strange epidemic broke out in Manchester that went on to affect Liverpool and other areas of England as well. All of a sudden, even moderate and light drinkers were experiencing complaints usually associated with alcoholism. Symptoms included stomach pain, pigmentation of the skin, and impaired motor function and reflexes. The cause of the contamination was traced back to sugar that had been made with arsenic-contaminated sulfuric acid. According to reports, more than 6,000 people were affected by the outbreak and about 70 people died. In the end, over 100 breweries were involved in the scandal, and they responded by working into the night to recall and dispose of the tainted beer.

8. Poison Grain Disaster – Iraq (1971)

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In 1971, ingestion of toxic grain contaminated by a mercury-based fungicide led to over 6,500 people being sent to hospital and as many as 650 reported deaths in Iraq. The disaster was caused by grain imported from the US and Mexico that had been treated with the dangerous fungicide – which was meant to be planted, not eaten. Largely due to problems understanding the foreign-language labels of the grain, rural Iraqis ate it – with devastating effect. People who consumed the grain suffered a lack of sensation in the skin, bad physical coordination, loss of sight, and even brain damage. The World Health Organization was still investigating the incident as recently as 2002.

7. Aflatoxin-Contaminated Maize – Kenya (2004)

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A tragic incident took place in Kenya in May 2004 when maize grain was contaminated with alfatoxin. Aflatoxin is a seriously poisonous carcinogen that is produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus. A. flavus occurs in the presence of high levels of moisture, and the contamination is thought to have occurred due to inadequate storage and drying procedures after heavy rains around harvest time. The case led to 317 incidences of liver failure, and 125 people died. A similar occurrence happened in 2010 that left no less than 2.3 million bags of grain unusable.

Scientists have in fact developed a cheap, harmless and natural way to combat the problem. Using biocontrol technology, they introduce harmless strains of A. flavus into an infected field, and these outcompete the dangerous strains.

6. Milk Scandal – China (2008)

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The first reports of the deadly Chinese milk scandal broke on July 16, 2008 in the country’s Gansu Province. Dramatically, 16 babies developed kidney stones after being fed powdered milk produced by state-owned dairy company the Sanlu Group. The cause was found to be the addition of melamine to milk and baby formula.

Following an inquest, it was discovered that the Sanlu Group had ignored reports of ill babies in 2007 and only began carrying out tests the following year. According to health officers and media accounts, the company tried to cover up the scandal and suppress any negative publicity. Estimates have it that by November 2008, the contamination had affected up to 300,000 individuals, with 54,000 babies hospitalized and six dying due to kidney damage. It’s thought that melamine was added to the milk to make it seem higher in protein.

In the wake of the scandal and resulting court cases, prominent government officials were forced to resign. There were also two executions, and a suspended death sentence, two 15-year prison terms and three lifetime sentences were handed out as well. Alarmingly, officials were still confiscating melamine-tainted products as late as 2010.

5. Minamata Disease – Japan (1956)

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Minamata disease affects the nervous system and is caused by acute mercury poisoning. Symptoms include weakened muscles and impaired senses, and severe cases can result in madness, paralysis, coma and death. The syndrome was first recognized in 1956 in a small Japanese coastal city called Minamata. The source of the problem was the release of mercury-tainted waste into the sea by the Chisso Corporation, which went on between 1932 and 1968.

The toxic chemical built up in sea creatures, which then poisoned the people who ate them. For years, cats were witnessed “dancing” in the street – though in reality, they were having convulsions before they went crazy and perished. Locals referred to the condition as “dancing cat fever.” But it wasn’t just animals that suffered. According to data from 2001, 2,265 people have been affected by the case, of whom 1,784 died. As of 2004, the Chisso Corporation had shelled out $86 million to compensate victims.

4. Morinaga Dried Milk Poisoning – Japan (1955)

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Another contamination case that rocked Japan in the 1950s was the occurrence of arsenic-tainted milk powder. The contamination happened at Morinaga Milk Company in Tokushima, where arsenic was accidentally mixed into the common preservative disodium phosphate, which was then added to milk powder. The initial reaction of those afflicted was diarrhea and vomiting, which made a specific cause hard to determine. This deadly episode affected as many as 13,400 and resulted in at least 100 deaths.

Morinaga’s head of factory production was sentenced to three years jail time at the end of what became one of the 10 longest legal cases in history, stretching over 18 years. The incident led to protests, and victims and their families formed alliances, demanding compensation.

3. Toxic Illegal Alcohol – India (2011)

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In 2011, a serious problem arose in West Bengal, India when toxic illegal alcohol led to the deaths of as many as 143 people. It’s thought that the alcohol was corrupted by the addition of methanol, ammonium nitrate (a fertilizer), or both. Each of the two substances is toxic to humans, and effects can include heart and respiratory difficulties.

Black market alcohol is a big problem in India, and toxic alcohol-related deaths are quite common. Even so, the breweries in West Bengal often operate without any interference from authorities and frequently bribe police. This contamination case at least led to 10 arrests. A man involved in the illegal alcohol trade told the BBC that a contaminated shipment was from a very greedy man who had mixed the alcohol with water and then added pesticide for “flavor.”

2. New Delhi Mustard Oil Contamination – India (1998)

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This next incident first came to light in New Delhi in 1998, when mustard oil (a popular cooking oil) was mixed with poisonous Argemone mexicana (Mexican poppy) seed oil. The effects were devastating, leading to an outbreak of the condition “epidemic dropsy,” which causes severe swelling, mainly of the legs. Other symptoms include breathing problems, diarrhea, nausea, headaches and glaucoma. As well as India, other countries that have experienced spates of epidemic dropsy are Madagascar, Fiji, South Africa, Mauritius and Nepal. With the exception of the South African case, all the epidemics were caused by A. mexicana-contaminated mustard oil.

The 1998 New Delhi episode claimed 60 lives, and as many as 3,000 individuals spent time in hospital. In the years since, there have been further outbreaks of the disease in India, but the 1998 incident is still the most severe so far.

1. Poisoned Wheat – Afghanistan (1974)

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From 1974 to 1976, an outbreak of hepatic veno-occlusive disease (a liver disease) occurred in rural Afghanistan. This incident was caused by wheat – which was then used in flour to make bread – that had been contaminated with charmac seeds. The contamination led to around 1,600 deaths and afflicted up to 7,800 people in total.

As recently as 2008, a similar case in the same country affected more than 100 people and killed 10. Charmac is a weed, and its seeds contain substances known as pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which are released by plants to protect themselves from being eaten. Ingestion can often have toxic effects – as the Afghanis experienced firsthand to their cost.

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