Monday, July 20, 2009

Food Part 1: Be Sure the Food You Eat is Safe

Pinapaitan and kilawin (goat's meat cooked with grass cud
extract or papait, and medium rare, respectively) are a
specialty among Ilocanos.

Abe V Rotor

Auntie Basang was fond of seafoods. She would meticulously clean any marine fish, crab, shell or seaweed, and warn any onlooker, “Watch out for kuret.”

The innocent-looking parasitic crab lives between the gill blades of big fishes and crabs, and who would think of it as a deadly creature? Herbolarios at that time were quick to attribute sudden deaths among seafood eaters to kuret, and it must be for this reason that the term gained notoriety.

"Di ka pay la coma ma-kuret!" (May the kuret get you!) is a cruel joke and it is actually a curse. "Sin contrition," the town 's religious folk would add to emphasize the sure and quick nature of kuret poisoning.

There was an actual case of crab poisoning in Zamboanga del Norte. The culprit is one of the many poisonous crabs found on Philippine rocky shores. All the five members of a family died soon after eating "kumong kumong" (Zozymus aennus L). The description fits the kind of crab that claimed the lives of a Japanese couple a few years earlier.

Crab poisoning is characterized by numbness of the lips, tip of the tongue and paralysis of the limbs, which the victim experiences fifteen minutes to a few hours after ingesting the poison. Intense vomiting ensues. Reddish swellings on the abdomen appear. Breathing becomes difficult, and soon the victim becomes unconscious. Respiratory failure follows. Death takes place in four to six hours, earlier among children. Other than local remedies like induced vomiting, there is no known effective antidote to crab poisoning. "Even dogs and pigs which eat the scraps are not spared," the old folks claim.

There is another kind of poisoning that shows the same deadly punch: mushroom poisoning, and it too, has no antidote. In Gatid, Sta. Cruz (Laguna), this writer encountered patches of wild mushrooms suspected to be Amanita, a deadly kind. Some books say if you find the stipe (stem) wearing a ring, and the gills are black, it is believed to be poisonous. The best advice is not to take chances. Eat only the known edible species.

Ethnic Food

There are poisonous plants and animals that occur naturally. But there are ethnic societies who have learned to remove the poisons they contain, thereby eating the foods without apparent harm. One example is nami (Dioscorea hispida), a relative of ubi and tugui'. Hispidine is the poisonous material that can be extracted by means of repeated washing. Some natives use dogs to test the safety of the produce.

The field of ethnobotany and ethnozoology covers interesting studies on how the natives deal with poisonous plants and animals as food. These may be from snakes and puffer fish to wild gabi and cassava. In Vigan (Ilocos Sur), for example, there is a technique in cooking cassava (Manihot utilissima) to minimize its cyanide content. The tuber is cleaned and cut into pieces, then boiled with the pot cover removed to allow the deadly cyanogas to escape with the steam.

By the way, storing cassava tuber should be avoided because the cyanide that is concentrated in the bark spreads onto the tuber. This is noticeable by the yellowish stain on the tuber. However, this is not readily noticeable in the case of the yellow or glutinous varieties of cassava.

The blood of the tangingi fish is first drained before it is cut and cooked. There are people who are allergic to this kind of fish. A case of fish allergy involved an 11-year old boy who ate a lot of talakitok fish eggs. Four hours after eating, he could hardly breathe, his eyes were virtually shut, reddish spots swarmed all over his body. He was immediately given an antihistamine injection. It took him one week to recover.

Symptoms of food poisoning from natural toxins appear to have similar patterns, with mortality rates dependent on the kind and amount of poison involved. When Red Tide first appeared in the early 1980s, in Maqueda Bay in Western Samar, there was very little knowledge about Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP). This poison accumulates in tahong (green mussel) and talaba (oyster) without causing them harm. There were reported deaths due to eating tahong during the red tide season. The poison affects the nerves, muscles, and probably the brain.

Our major bays have had experiences with red tide crippling the shellfish industry for sometime. The Department of Health, in cooperation with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, ban harvesting and selling of marine shellfish when the Red Tide season is severe. This usually happens late in the summer when the early rains wash down nitrates and phosphates coming from the uplands on their way to the sea. High sunlight intensity and long days favor the bloom of these microorganisms. During this period, the shellfish ingest the microscopic dinoflagellates (Pyrodinium bahamense compressa) in seemingly unending appetite. In biology this is called luxury feeding, a compensation mechanism among sessile organisms to store as much energy in their bodies while there is food available.

Symptoms of Red Tide Poisoning

1. Numbness is felt on the lips and tongue.
2. Speech is affected.
3. Numbness extends to the hands.
4. There is difficulty in breathing.
5. If the poisoning is severe the victim suffers of general paralysis
6. Cardiac arrest ensues.

An antidote to red tide poisoning has been developed by the Department of Health. But in remote areas, like Samar in the Visayas region, a folk remedy is to induce vomiting and excretion of the toxin by giving the patient a lot of coconut extract (gata).


Reference: The Living with Nature Handbook by AVR, UST Publishing House, Manila

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