What's the beef?

BRAINFOOD To die from the Sunday joint would, admittedly, be a miserable way to go

The Italian writer Guido Ceronetti - obviously as the result of a visit to a modern hospital with its dehumanising indignities - wrote recently that he found it difficult to imagine Genghis Khan or Leonardo da Vinci walking down a corridor obediently bearing a urine sample. It is a point well taken. Whatever the differences in their temperaments these two men, hardly underachievers, had a clear notion of the integrity of their lives. The body was a fallible instrument, but neither man was going to submit to its tyranny.

I feel the same way about the great beef controversy. To die from the Sunday joint would, admittedly, be a miserable way to go. But, in the order of things, if food sustains us it may also sometimes kill us, and much more certain is that if we don't eat we will die.

It is hard to imagine Alexander the Great marching eastward with orders to his troops to avoid eating beef. And while the toxic properties of food have been well known since time began (though for much of history a greater worry has been not getting enough to eat), we seem to have taken our risks and survived as a species.

It happens that last year one of my closest friends, a celebrated writer, came close to dying from something he ate. He had taken himself off to the Dutch (very clean people, the Dutch) island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean. And there, on his first night, he ate a fish fry. Delicious dish, served cheerfully in a luxurious hotel.

The next day he woke up overwhelmed by a distaste for the smell of cooking. He also could not eat - or write, which to him was even worse. By the third day he was grievously ill and a doctor was called. His illness was diagnosed as dengue fever, which is endemic on the islands, and he was treated with quinine - though quinine was already part of the treatment he was undergoing for an inconsequential heart murmur.

Matters did not improve; indeed they grew worse. His central nervous system was affected, and he could not control his body parts. It was not until he had spent nigh on 30 days on a respirator, and was on the verge of death, that almost by chance a young doctor remembered a Dutch medical paper he had once read, and diagnosed my friend's illness as due to sigua toxin. Should you be going to the Caribbean this winter, you may like to know that this relatively rare disorder comes from eating fish which feed on a certain coral. The fish don't get ill but, if you eat the fish, you do.

Here matters were made worse because the venom in question is an atropine, a poisonous alkaloid chemically related to quinine. In fact, my friend nearly died from a combination of poisoned fish and medicine.

Now, it is possible that the restaurant in Sint Maarten knew this could happen; much more probably, they did not. People weren't dropping dead around them from poisoned fish, though perhaps it happened occasionally.

I consider this risk roughly parallel to that of eating beef. Which fish may have eaten what coral is about as hard to detect as unhealthy beef. Unlike beef, which is domesticated and therefore may be banned, it would be hard for a government to take action against fish swarming in its waters, on the odd chance that these had made a sorry choice of food.

Both represent a risk, and a government could decree that every piece of beef, or every fish landed, should be inspected. Like our livestock raisers, fishermen in Sint Maarten would be incensed. And after a while it would also seem foolish. Compared to the expense, the risk is statistically insignificant - and my friend did indeed pull through, which helps to show that the risk is very small, for had it been better known, a) the hotel would have been more cautious, and b) the doctor would not have misdiagnosed dengue fever.

A bad oyster may kill; so may a wrong egg, or a refractory piece of salad on which you have choked. If the fault is in you, as with some allergies, you will know enough not to eat that which hurts you, however much you like it. If the fault lies in the ingredient itself it is not so simple. But as the advantages of a healthy and varied diet greatly outweigh the risk, perhaps - like Ghengis Khan and Leonardo - we should simply learn greater stoicism and not spend our lives with a metaphorical urine sample in our hand

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
John Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    E-Commerce Developer

    £45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

    Technical Support Analyst (C++, Windows, Linux, Perl, Graduate)

    £30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global leader in trading platforms and e...

    Junior IT Consultant (SQL, Java, C++, Oracle, Graduate)

    £28000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A fast growing consultancy to the financia...

    Technical Support Analyst (Windows, Linux, Unix, Graduate)

    £30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Support Analyst - Liverpool Stre...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil