(© 2003 Quentin Bristow)

[A molecular biologist and a medical researcher track down the cause of a mysterious food poisoning outbreak]

Michael Shaw was a talented molecular biologist and chief scientist for a young and flourishing agricultural genetics engineering company in rural eastern Ontario. The first few years had been tough, but finally back in 2008, his group had successfully created a genetically modified strain of barley that was resistant to almost all of the known pathogens which caused damage to barley crops.

There was always a steady ground fire of opposition from well-meaning but ill-informed activists, and even from some with scientific backgrounds like Lynda Dewhurst, the Ontario Health Ministry epidemiologist, who he felt should have known better. These people were articulate and very determined, they spooked the politicians and were beloved by the TV and print media for providing them with confrontational human interest stories when there were no murders, terrorist attacks or airline crashes. It had been five years now and their dire prophesies had not come to pass. Nobody had grown two heads from eating products that contained the new strain, which was no surprise to Michael Shaw.

His argument had always been that the approximately thirty percent crop yields typically provided by Mother Nature unaided, could not sustain the increasing population. The average seventy percent yields that the use of pesticides now made possible, had become an essential requirement of modern agriculture. Michael had a deep seated aversion to smothering everything with pesticides as a preventive measure and insisted that this target could easily be achieved with genetically modified strains. On the pesticide issue at least, he and Lynda Dewhurst were on the same side.

Meanwhile he had other things to worry about, both his school age children had come down with a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning. No surprise there, apparently it was running rampant all over the region. The symptoms were nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The Health Ministry people were really worried. Mindful of the Walkerton tragedy, now many years ago but still not forgotten, the first line of attack was to look at the water, including bottled water, in the various communities, but extensive tests turned up nothing.

Soon the toxins responsible were isolated and that was a major surprise, they were not ecoli strains or any water-borne parasites, they were derivatives of oxalic acid called Oxalates, the naturally occurring substances in rhubarb leaves that makes people sick if they eat them. Where the hell was it coming from and why only in some areas and not others? The stress was taking its toll. The media had got wind of the fact that something unusual was afoot and were shoving microphones in the faces of any health official they could find. Nerves were on edge and tempers frayed.

Yet another council of war was held at the local office of the Health Ministry epidemiology division. Most of the people present agreed that accidental contamination of some food product was the problem. Lynda Dewhurst had a different take on it. "Pesticides" she said, I bet you anything that some pesticide or other has something to do with it".

The chief epidemiologist Dan Goldman was getting near the end of his tether.

"Oh for God's sake Lynda, we both know there are no oxalates in pesticides, I am not going on another of your pesticide crusades, we've got to stick to our knitting and start sampling everything under the sun until we track down the source of the contamination. We better begin with the obvious ones"

"Like what?" Lynda wanted to know.

"Like commercial super market rhubarb pies for a start. It's not inconceivable that a whole bunch of leaves got scooped up by one of those processing machines and tipped into the filling mix."

" But Dan we just don't have the people" said Bill Sykes of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Despite changes in governments at both the provincial and federal level since the Walkerton tragedy, they still continued to short-change health and environmental enforcement.

"What do you suggest Bill, that we put out a press release saying ‘Rhubarb pies could be dangerous to your health' ? Not having enough people means it'll take that much longer, but we've got no choice."

"What we should do for a start, is to interview all the families whose members got sick and take notes on what it was they ate before hand" said Lynda.

That eminently sensible suggestion received general approval and a plan was drawn up involving both hospital ER physicians and nurses and area doctors, to provide the necessary feedback. In the following days the data coming in showed that the most common foods eaten by those who got sick, were pasta eaten at home and food eaten at some small rural independent restaurants around the area.

"Where the hell does that leave us?" said an exasperated Goldman. "I could have believed something in the potatoes, or contaminated meat or salad dressing in the restaurant burgers - but pasta eaten at home! There is absolutely no common factor in any of this that I can make out".

Lynda Dewhurst couldn't see any links there either, but she had a gut feeling that a pesticide was the culprit at some level, although she couldn't produce a shred of evidence. She phoned her nemesis, Michael Shaw, and explained the situation.

"Michael, you've heard about what's going on I am sure. We are at our wits end down here trying to connect the dots on the oxalate contamination problem - if that's what it is. You keep abreast of our mutual friends the pesticide pariahs, do you know of any new and nasty ones that have come into use in the last few months?".

"Well funny that you should ask that, as a matter of fact there is one. Some local nurseries are using it to combat vegetable blight. Why don't you come over and we can talk about it. I have a vested interest in this because my kids came down with the bug, or whatever it is."

Lynda was shown into his executive suite and served coffee and doughnuts. Michael came in five minutes later.

"Sorry I wasn't here to meet you Lynda, always busy trying to get contracts, or fend off regulators, with due respect to you."

"Ah Michael" she sighed, you've come a long way since we took that biochemistry course at Ottawa University. Sometimes I wish I had done a Ph.D. in molecular biology like you, rather than winding up as a token woman M.D. in a bureaucratic organisation."

"You're no token woman Lynda, you keep us all honest, and I know for a fact that Dan Goldman values your opinion."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, by the way, what did your kids eat that made them sick?"

"Well I'm not sure really, Shirley and I took them to one of the older local restaurants. She won't let them near hamburgers, so they just had onion rings and french fries. The next day all hell broke loose".

"Nothing else, no salads or baked pies?"

Suddenly Michael slapped the table,.

"No, no salads or baked pies - but didn't I hear you say the connection is pasta eaten at home and visits to small independent restaurants? Now think Lynda, there is a link between the two, but you're all looking right past it. What is it that kids particularly, ladle on everything at restaurants, and what almost invariably goes with pasta?"

"Oh MY GOD, Tomatoes! Of course, ketchup on the fries and onion rings, and tomato sauce with meat or whatever is in it with the pasta. But why just some of the rural area restaurants, tomato ketchup is on supermarket shelves everywhere, so are bottled pasta sauces?"

"Well I think it's time to visit some local nurseries. I work with these guys all the time in my business of course. I know for a fact that they supply a lot of the tomatoes for bulk processing into ketchup, which is sold wholesale to the smaller independent restaurants in the rural areas. After all, these places go through swimming pools of the stuff in a summer season and they can save a bundle by doing that. The same goes for the pasta sauces. A lot of the brand names buy their tomatoes and bottle their stuff locally in season, again it saves a huge amount in transport costs. That might explain why some areas are affected and not others."

"Brilliant Michael, So-o-o, that new pesticide you mentioned, being used locally for the first time, just might be the culprit then."

"Well, it sure as hell fits the facts doesn't it. This is really, really interesting, would you have time to come with me tomorrow and visit one of the nurseries?"

Lynda readily agreed. She decided not to sound the alarm to her colleagues about the tomato link. No point in getting everyone worked up until it could be shown that the idea had legs. They went to visit Hindlebury Nurseries, a huge operation on the outskirts of the town of Hindlebury about 30 kilometres from Renfrew in eastern Ontario. The proprietor was Jack Appleby, who Michael knew well. They toured round the tomato fields and Michael asked about the new pesticide.

"Yes, it has just been approved and we decided to try it because this is the year of the return of the tomato blight. It comes about every five years and we got word of some instances further south, which was no surprise, so we have been putting it on and so far so good."

"I see you have two varieties here Jack, what's the score there?"

"Oh well, the one over there is the regular Beefsteak, plus some other tried and true varieties and the one on this side, the slightly paler one, is called ‘Hispania Bella' which is I suppose ‘Spanish Beauty'. It is something which we have been getting from Vegeculture Research for about five years now. We like it because it has a pretty high degree of resistance to just about everything, which is quite unusual in tomatoes. The only drawback is market acceptance, the flavour is a bit thin, not as succulent as the conventional varieties."

"So why do you grow so much of it"

"That's easy, we sell this to the bulk processing plants for ketchup, chile sauce and so on. The flavour is not an issue with them, because they put in all sorts of additives".

"You're using the new pesticide on both varieties, even though the Hispania Bella would probably be Okay without it".

"Yes that's right, we just can't afford to get wiped out in this business, so you could say it's a sort of insurance premium to spray both varieties."

"Anyone else doing the same thing in the area?"

"Oh absolutely, Dave Peabody runs an operation about this size over at Taviton, the other side of Arnprior, and he is doing exactly what I am doing. I suppose together, we supply the lion's share of the market for the Hispania Bella variety during the summer months".

Michael asked for some samples of all the varieties, saying that they might help him with something he was working on.

"Sure, no problem Michael, I keep hoping that if I keep giving you enough raw material, one day you'll come up with the perfect product!" Michael and Lynda went back to his car and she zeroed in on the Hispania Bella. "Isn't there something a little odd about the characteristics of that variety, it seems too good to be true. This Vegeculture Research outfit, are they into genetic engineering?"

"Now Lynda, don't let's get into that, and the answer is absolutely not, they just do the traditional tinkering. They have a few botanists on staff and once in a while they have a little breakthrough which pays off for them and evidently this is one of them. Let's go and pay them a visit and you can see for yourself".

The owner was a man in his sixties by the name of Jim Meredith, who of course knew Michael well and he greeted the pair warmly.

"Pleased to meet you Dr. Dewhurst, hello Michael, what brings you to our humble lo- tech enterprise today."

Michael said that he was interested in the history of the Hispania Bella variety. Meredith explained that it came from seeds which he had extracted from some tomatoes which had arrived from somewhere in South America. His source of supply was the local supermarket.

" It didn't have a name, so I decided to do some creative dubbing and after looking through my Spanish dictionary, I came up with that one. I thought it was rather good".

On the drive back to town, Lynda once again wondered aloud about the Hispania Bella having been genetically modified.

"No chance m'Dear, you remember the hoops I had to jump through to get the barley approved."

"Those tomatoes came from South America Michael, it's pretty much open season for the multinationals in the genetic engineering business in the third world, as you know, they can't afford the pesticides. Wanna bet ? You're the one with the expertise, why don't you run the tests on that sample and find out".

"Well, Okay I will, but even if you're right, why does that make it a potential culprit, you heard Jack Appleby say that he has been using it for years".

"I dunno Michael, that's your ball of wax, not mine, but here's a shot in the dark, could it be that the new pesticide is reacting in some way with the enzyme produced by whatever gene was inserted into the Hispania Bella to combat blight.?"

Michael began to feel distinctly unsure of himself. Lynda might have scored a direct hit with that argument. He went back to his company lab and ordered tests for oxalates on all the samples and had the equivalent of a DNA test run on the Hispania Bella variety.

Later he phoned Lynda Dewhurst.

"Lynda, never let anyone ever again say you are the token woman. That damn Hispania Bella sample has significant concentrations of oxalates and the other varieties showed nothing. You are also right about the genetic modification. The tests show that something similar to a rhubarb gene is contained in the genetic code, which would of course account for it. Obviously something in the new pesticide switches it on, causing it to create the oxalates. I haven't a bloody clue what it might be, but we better move quickly to scotch this before things get totally out of hand. I guess that's your department, I am fully prepared to pass on the test results to Dan Goldman and I'll support any action you guys take. I must admit Lynda, that I'm a lot less certain now about genetically modified foods."

"Michael that is very gracious of you I must say. As far as I am concerned you were the one who picked up on the tomato clue, you were right, we had all been looking straight past it. Let's face it, it takes two to tango."