Microbe: Are We Ready for the Next Plague?

By Alan P. Zelicoff; Michael Bellomo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
SHARDS OF GLASS
IN THE BRAIN
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow)

Food-borne illness is part and parcel of human history. Early attempts to preserve food from the microbial growth that causes decay and disease led to developments as varied as the grain silo (to keep stored wheat dry) and the pepper trade (the application of pepper helped people ignore the offensive taste of half-rotten meat). Up until the nineteenth century, the methods developed to preserve food were still limited to smoking, drying, and salting. Remarkably, it was a warmongering European emperor who jumpstarted modern-day food preservation.

The millions of men who made up Napoleon Bonaparte's armies around 1800 depended on nourishment primarily from salt-preserved meats. These cured foods provided only incomplete nutrition. Both the army and navy endured frequent outbreaks of scurvy due to the complete absence of vitamin C in the men's diets. To counteract the debilitating diseases caused by malnutrition and to better feed his armies on the march, Napoleon put out a contract offering 12,000 francs to the person who devised a safe and dependable food-preservation process for his forces.

The winner was a Parisian bottle-washer, confectioner, and restaurateur turned chemist named Nicolas Appert. Though Appert didn't really understand why, he had observed that food heated in sealed containers was pre

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