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
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
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

    Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

    £70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

    Nursery Nurse

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

    Nursery Nurse

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments