The pulse, blanche fleur, is grown in Australia as fodder for cattle and sheep. Their complex stomachs can break down the toxins.
But Max Tate and Dirk Enneking, scientists from the University of Adelaide, have uncovered evidence that the pulse has been exported from Australia for human consumption.
Of the 9,500 tons of blanche fleur sold in the past year, 5,600 tons were sold as split red vetch, either as 'red legumes' or 'red dhal', they say in today's Nature.
They say the cost of treating the pulse means it is too expensive to feed to animals.
Blanche fleur (Vicia sativa) produces white flowers and its seeds closely resemble red lentils (Lens culinaris), especially when coated with vegetable oil. But the lentils contain nerve agents beta-cyanoalanine and gamma-glutamine in large amounts, the researchers say. Toxicity tests prove it is fatal to pigs, mules, horses, ducks and chickens.
Despite this, they quote the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service as saying: 'Blanche fleur is suitable for human consumption and in its split form has a similar colour, shape and size as lentil.'
The vetch has been exported to the Middle East, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Austria and the United States. So far there have been no reports of poisonings.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said it could not say whether the red vetch had been imported but had no knowledge of any problems.Reuse content