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The Unfunny Side of Mass Food Casualty…


While the east coast continues picking up the pieces from Hurricane Irene, the Smithsonian blog has a little item picking out four prominent food-related disasters of the modern age. (And before you read on with this post, please consider donating or volunteering to help with disaster relief for the areas severely affected by Irene. It hit the coast lightly, but was devastating to inland communities in the Northeast).

As far as these things go I’m a bit of a connoisseur: I’ve got a morbid streak a mile wide, and the more unusual the mishap, the better I like reading about it. As a local, I knew about the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, but I was surprised to learn about the London Beer Flood, or the The Great Mill Disaster of Minneapolis (although it’s not too surprising: silos and mills are always at risk—flour and wheat dust is explosive!)

It’s the last entry, though, that caught my attention: the Basra Mass Poisoning.

In the winter of 1971, shipment of grain arrived in Basra, Iraq; however, it was treated with a methylmercury fungicide and was intended only for use on seed. (If ingested, methylmercury can cause serious neurological damage, and in high doses, can be deadly.) The bags were accordingly marked poison—although only in English and Spanish—and the grains were dyed bright pink to indicate they were not for consumption. Nevertheless, bags of grain were stolen before they could be distributed to farmers, the dye washed off and the grain sold as food. (Another account says that the grain was freely given away and the recipients thought that washing off the dye would rid the grain of mercury, making it safe to eat.) Some 6,500 people were hospitalized, 459 of whom died.

What struck me about this “disaster” was not how unusual it is, but how typical. As Americans, we take our food security mostly for granted. Even as we argue about the relative wholesomeness of organically-raised produce or the obesity epidemic, the fact remains that most Americans have access to safe food, most of the time.

Image by Christian Fiction Historical Society

Will Fertman

Will Fertman is a writer and food business entrepreneur living in Berkeley, CA. A former staff writer and web manager for culture, Will wrote the Ruminations column for the magazine and spent lots of time wrangling social media. Today Will is the Director of Content and co-founder at the monger, a data-driven platform for the specialty food industry, supplying accountable information and transactions for producers, distributors, retailers, foodservice and consumers.

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