DOMINIC LAWSON on what the coronavirus crisis has taught us about food

DOMINIC LAWSON: My bird flu and what this crisis has taught us about the food we eat

We don’t know how this will end, but we have a good idea of how it started. 

The coronavirus sweeping the world can be traced back to a food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the new strain first transferred from wildlife to humans.

The idea of cross-species infection scares us because it seems somehow unnatural. But it is the way of nature.

As Jonathan Runstadler, a professor of infectious diseases, has observed, all known forms of influenza down the ages (including the Spanish flu that killed up to 100 million in 1918) derive from our contact with other species, especially fowl: ‘Birds serve as a reservoir for a vast diversity of influenza viruses to which all the major human pandemics trace their origin.’

The ‘wet markets’ of China, now the focus of global disapproval, are in a way as natural as you can get.

The chickens are not aseptically presented, trimmed, gutted and sealed hermetically in germ-excluding plastic, as in Western supermarkets. 

They are alive. You point to the one that takes your fancy, and the vendor butchers it there and then. You can’t get fresher than that.

The closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is pictured above. The coronavirus sweeping the world can be traced back to a food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the new strain first transferred from wildlife to humans

Hazard

It is not the eating of the chicken that is the problem here: the virus was spread from living creatures to humans in the market. 

But still, you would be much safer eating a U.S. battery chicken which had received the mandatory pathogen reduction treatment.

This is the process sometimes described, inaccurately, as ‘chlorination’, and which fashionable opinion in this country bizarrely denounces as a health hazard to consumers.

I admit that I am not an expert on these matters, but I have painful experience of the potentially fatal consequences of ‘going natural’ when it comes to food production.

In 2001, I contracted what is colloquially known as ‘bird flu’ — psittacosis, as the medics termed it — entirely as a result of seeking ‘the good life’.

We had a vegetable garden, on which we (sensibly) used man-made nitrogenous fertilisers. But my wife disapproved, wanting to go entirely organic. So she purchased a truckload of pigeon droppings (as recommended by various ‘natural food’ advocates).

Not long afterwards I contracted what I thought was normal flu, which developed into pneumonia. 

I’d had pneumonia before, and the local GP prescribed the antibiotics which had knocked it on the head the last time.

But on this occasion, they had no effect and I just got more ill.

Eventually I was taken to see a specialist in lung infections at a hospital near Tunbridge Wells. He asked me if we kept poultry. We did, as it happened.

Then he asked if I was ‘fond of them, treating them like pets, that sort of thing’. I denied unnatural closeness to any form of fowl, as vehemently as I was able in my enfeebled state. 

Well, he said, as you clearly have atypical pneumonia and as you keep birds which are known to be able to transmit influenza to humans, ‘for example, through inhaling spores from their faeces’, he would put me on a drip of the antibiotics appropriate for such a form of infection.

Not entirely reassuringly, he added that with such treatment, ‘you have a better than 70 per cent chance of recovery’.

US President and self-confessed ‘germaphobe’ Donald Trump is pictured eating a McDonald’s meal on a private jet  

Even in near delirium, I suddenly understood what had happened. I turned to my worried-looking wife and gasped: ‘It’s your pigeon poo!’

Anyway, as this column demonstrates, I survived. Unlike one patient at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, who in January last year died after inhaling a fungus typically found in pigeon droppings.

Pigeon manure aside, it is now clear from a number of peer-reviewed ‘meta-surveys’ that there are no measurable health benefits from eating so-called organic food, rather than food grown ‘unnaturally’ with the aid of pesticides.

Cancer Research UK has concluded that ‘in our large study of middle-aged women in the UK, we found no evidence that a woman’s overall cancer risk was decreased if she generally ate organic food’.

Indeed, its survey of 600,000 women aged 50 and over actually found ‘a small increased risk of breast cancer among those who ate organic produce’.

Devastating

Although this is unrelated, the deadliest food-poisoning incident in Europe within living memory was caused by organic fenugreek sprouts grown in Germany. 

The toxins in them produced an E. coli outbreak, which in 2011 affected 3,950 consumers, killing 53 of them (all but two in Germany).

This attracted remarkably little media coverage: but imagine if a similar number of fatalities was caused by a company such as McDonald’s, or any of the other mass-market food chains so despised by well-to-do food faddists. 

Former professional chef Anthony Warner, pictured above, points out that ‘throughout any day we will consume thousands of different chemicals in the form of food’

You would never hear the end of it, and the resultant court cases would cost such a company billions, possibly its very existence.

It is, in fact, such multi-national firms which are the safest for consumers (and with the record to prove it), in large part because the consequences of a catastrophic hygiene failure would be so devastating for their global brands — and the U.S. is the most litigious country on Earth, so they would be ruined. 

Anthony Warner’s book The Angry Chef: Bad Science And The Truth About Healthy Eating is pictured

A friend of mine with a dodgy digestive system, and who has a job that takes him all over the world, makes a point of always eating at McDonald’s if it is an option in any of the far-flung places he visits. He just feels safe that way, even if a little bored.

In fact, the world’s most well-known self-confessed ‘germaphobe’, one Donald J. Trump, lives almost exclusively off a diet of McDonald’s hamburgers for similar reasons.

I am not a lover of McDonald’s hamburgers, extraordinarily good value though they are. 

But the only time I have suffered severe food poisoning from such a dish was when I had a highly recommended ‘steak haché’ at a historic meat market in the beautiful French city of Carcassonne.

Prejudice

I watched while the butcher formed and cooked the preservative-free, pure beef patty in front of me. It was delicious. 

The whole experience was a delight . . . up to the point shortly after I got back to my hotel room and suddenly doubled over.

The term ‘processed food’ is now used as a form of abuse, denoting a crime against society and even nature itself. 

The word ‘chemicals’, when used in connection with food, is similarly stigmatised, as if it were a metaphor for ‘unhealthy’.

I wish the ever-increasing number of people with this fashionable prejudice would read The Angry Chef: Bad Science And The Truth About Healthy Eating. 

Its author, the former professional chef Anthony Warner, points out that ‘throughout any day we will consume thousands of different chemicals in the form of food.

‘Just because that combination of chemicals comes from a natural source does not imbue it with some sort of magical health-giving powers or ensure that it is completely safe.

‘When they are swirling around in our digestive system, our body has no way of telling if the 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid molecules were added in a factory as an acidulant to extend the shelf life of a pasta sauce, or came from a squeeze of lemon juice, where this chemical is known by its common name of citric acid.’

And, as Warner also points out, in our modern world of ‘processed foods’ and industrialised food conglomerates, our food supply has never been safer.

‘There is less contamination, and there are fewer cases of poisoning than at any time in our history. By pretty much any measure you can think of, the golden age is now — and yet we remain convinced that we are broken.’

Of course, we could all revert to the ancient practices of the ‘wet markets’ of Wuhan, living and working alongside the fowl killed for each customer as and when requested, in time-honoured bespoke fashion.

So culturally authentic, so fresh, so close to nature!

But, given the latest consequences, perhaps it is time to give credit where it is due to the Western world’s ‘unnatural’ mass food production processes, and ask China to emulate our unjustly maligned standards.

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