Mozambique: food safety issue or tribal vengeance? (Update 17.01.2015)

Probably what will be the most scaring and bizarre food safety issue of the year is coming from Mozambique, where few days ago at least 69 people died (and 196 were hospitalized) after drinking the traditional pombe beer during a funeral.

The Government declared three days of national mourning.

The beer was probably contaminated by crocodile’s bile and most of the people which consume the beverage in the morning stay healthy, while the ones which consume the beer in the afternoon fell ill: probably an intentional contamination happened when the mourners were at the cemetery, but the cause are still unknown.

It was the funeral of a newborn baby and also the child’s mother died.

Samples of blood and beer have been sent to the main hospital in the capital, Maputo, to be tested and to identify the poisonous substance: the situation is expected to worsen because the region did not have the necessary resources to deal with the scale of the poisoning.

Crocodile bile effects are quite controversial and it is quite impossible to find reliable scientific sources: for the East African tradition is a powerful venom, but it seems also that it could be “activated” only if mixed with some not better specified roots. The fact is that African crocodile hunters, especially on the shores of Lake Victoria, usually cut the liver of the beasts and burn it or throw into the water to avoid any risk.

Pombe beer is a traditional Mozambican beer, made from millet or corn flour and brewed for about two days. It is often served during ceremonies, and is sold in rural areas of the country. We can find a description of this beverage in the words of the British explorer Richard Francis Burton, that in late 1850′ traveled from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika and back, and then wrote “The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration”:

“In East Africa every man is his own maltster; and the “iwánzá” or public house of the village , is the common brewery. In some tribes, however, fermentation is the essential occupation of the women. The principal inebriant is a beer without hops, called pombe. This [beer] of the negro and negroid races dates from the age of Osiris: it is the buzah of Egypt and the farther East, and the merissa of the Upper Nile, the… xythum of the West, and the oala or boyaloa of the Kafirs and the South African races. The taste is somewhat like soured wort of the smallest description, but strangers, who at first dislike it exceedingly, are soon reconciled to it by the pleasurable sensations to which it gives rise. … When made thick with the grounds or sediment of grain it is exceedingly nutritious. Many a gallon must be drunk by the veteran malt-worm before intoxication; and individuals of both sexes sometimes live almost entirely upon pombe. It is usually made as follows: half of the grain–holcus, panicum, or both mixed–intended for the brew is buried or soaked in water till it sprouts; it is then pounded and mixed with the other half, also reduced to flour, and sometimes with a little honey. The compound is boiled twice or thrice in huge pots, strained, when wanted clear, through a bag of matting, and allowed to ferment: after the third day it becomes as sour as vinegar. … As these liquors consume a quantity of grain they are expensive; the large gourdful never fetches less than two khete or strings of beads, and strangers must often pay ten khete for the luxury.

The use of pombe is general throughout the country: the other inebriants are local. At the island and on the coast of Zanzibar, tembo, or toddy, in the West African dialects tombo, is drawn from the cocoa-tree; and in places a pernicious alcohol, called mvinyo, is extracted from it. The Wajiji and other races upon the Tanganyika Lake tap the Guinea-palm for a toddy, which, drawn grawn in unclean pots, soon becomes acid and acrid… “Máwá,” or plantain-wine, is highly prized because it readily intoxicates. The fruit, when ripe, is peeled and hand-kneaded with coarse green grass, in a wide-mouthed earthen pot, till all the juice is extracted: the sweet must is then strained through acornet of plantain-leaf into a clean gourd, which is but partially stopped. To hasten fermentation a handful of toasted or pounded grain is added: after standing for two days in a warm room the wine is ready for drinking.”

17.01.2015 Update

The count of deaths is now 73.

Norman Z. Nyazema, Ph.D., now a professor of pharmacology at the University of Limpopo in South Africa, told Forbes.com that he more likely suspects a common agricultural pesticide (organophosphate) as the agent that has killed the people in the villages of Chitima and Songo. He is one of the few scientist which studied “crocodile bile” effects, back in 1984-1985.

The venomous power of crocodile bile is not scientifically proven and mostly linked to local folklore. With the word “crocodile bile”, both the East African magic tradition and the Chinese one, seem to indicate a venomous mix of herbs and not the anatomic part of the crocodile.

In any case, the cause of the deaths is still unknown and we are waiting for the results of the analysis from the official lab in Mozambique.

 

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