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