From individuals having to undergo surgery to entire towns facing a catastrophe, history is replete with food-related tragedies. What may be shocking is not an uncommon occurrence in the pages of time. It is just that these have not been covered, or rather we have not studied these events as extensively as other subjects. Today we bring you 10 food-related tragedies that may surprise you.
1. In 1942, Jewish inmates at the Vapniarka Concentration Camp in Ukraine were fed a significant amount of ground-up pea fodder. The peas contained a neurotoxic amino acid that caused lower limb paralysis in the prisoners. They were reduced to crawling, and 117 of them were paralyzed for life.
In 1941, Romania set up a concentration camp in Vapniarka in present-day Ukraine. There, malnourished Jewish prisoners were fed a staple diet of ground-up Lathyrus sativus, a type of pea that is generally used as livestock fodder.
This species of pea contains oxalyl-diamino propionic acid, a neurotoxic amino acid that causes neurolathyrism. The neurodegenerative disease cause paralysis of the lower limbs. Young starved men are more susceptible to its ill effects, a demographic similar to the inmates at the camp.
2. In 1971, in response to a shortage of wheat due to a severe drought, Iraq imported high-yielding wheat called “Mexipak.” Sprayed with a mercury-based fungicide, the import reached Iraq after the end of the planting season. Farmers, left with the seeds, used it to make bread and feed livestock. The mercury-laced grains killed 459 people and caused permanent brain damage in thousands of others.
Faced with a severe drought in 1971, the Iraqi government imported “Mexipak,” a high-yielding variety of wheat from Mexico. To protect the seeds from humidity and fungi infestation, it was coated with a mercury-based fungicide.
However, the shipment arrived in Iraq after the planting season had ended. Most farmers who were left with sacks of wheat didn’t heed government warnings of the dangerous fungicide. They used it as fodder for their livestock and also made bread from it.
The ones who took notice of the government’s warnings disposed of them which eventually made their way into rivers.
A few weeks later, hospitals in the country were flooded with people suffering from numb skin and lack of coordination of muscle movements. Tragically, 459 people died and thousands suffered from permanent brain damage. Rivers, too, were contaminated, affecting fish and birds which led to an environmental disaster. (1, 2)
3. On October 17, 1814, 22-foot-tall wooden vats of fermenting porter burst at the Meux Brewery in London. The resulting pressure caused several more barrels to be damaged. A total of 128,000 to 323,000 imperial gallons, which is 580,000 to 1,470,000 liters of beer was released, killing eight people in total.
Meux Brewery was one of the two largest breweries in London in the early nineteenth century. Henry Maux constructed a 22-foot-tall wooden vessel that could hold 18,000 imperial barrels.
Eighty-one metric tons of iron hoops were used for safety. These numbers give us an idea of the scale of the outpour that when it finally happened, which was strong enough to knock off the 25 feet high rear wall of the brewery.
Much damage ensued and eight people were killed, including at least two children. Although Meux & Co didn’t have to pay compensation on account of the incident being deemed as an “Act of God,” they nevertheless sustained internal costs of £23,000. (1, 2)
4. In 2016, a man from San Francisco ended up with a 2.5 cm hole in his throat after eating the world’s hottest chili. He was rushed to the emergency room after eating a Bhut jolokia, or ghost pepper. Within seconds after consumption, the man began to vomit violently, causing a perforation in his esophagus.
A 47-year old man from San Fransico participated in a chili-eating contest. There, he ate a burger smothered in a paste made out of ghost peppers; the world’s hottest pepper with a Scoville rating of more than one million.
Soon, he began to retch and vomit violently, followed by severe pain in his chest and abdomen that made him fall to the floor. He was immediately rushed to the emergency room. There, after a chest X-ray and CT-scan, the doctors determined that his esophagus had been perforated.
He was immediately operated upon. During the procedure, doctors discovered a 2.5cm hole in his throat. Also known as “Boerhaave syndrome,” a tear in the esophagus is a rare and fatal condition. For 14 days he was intubated to aid his breathing and spent a total of 23 days in the hospital. (1, 2)
5. King Adolf Frederick of Sweden, who was nicknamed “the King who ate himself to death,” died after eating a large meal in preparation for the Christian festival of Lent. His last meal consisted of caviar, lobster, kippers, sauerkraut, and champagne. This was followed by 14 servings of hetvagg; a dessert made of semla and served with hot milk.
King Adolf Frederick’s mannerism, like his death, was unusual. He was a ruler that was gentle to his servants and was more known as a caring husband and doting father rather than a fierce conqueror.
February 12, 1771, was a Shrove Tuesday. To prepare for Lent, the king ate a large meal of sauerkraut, kippers, caviar, lobster, and champagne. All this was followed by a dessert of semla pastries with bowls of hot milk, called hetvagg. Of this, he ate 14 servings.
He was surely over-compensating for the food restrictions during Lent. Unable to process the humongous meal, he passed away and was nicknamed with the unusual title “the King who ate himself to death.” (1, 2)