Food Poisoning in Spain, 40 Years Later

Oct. 25, 2021

What we can learn from a food poisoning incident from 1981.

A recent protest at El Prado, Spain’s famous art museum, brought back memories of the worst food poisoning incident in Spain’s history: a disaster that cost up to 1,000 lives, and sickened tens of thousands more.

The incident, which took place in 1981, is not only tragic but frustratingly ambiguous. The generally accepted narrative is that the culprit was “cooking oil” that was actually industrial lubricant, repackaged and sold in pop-up markets in poor neighborhoods. Several executives of oil processing companies received long prison terms in 1989 for their alleged involvement.

But a vocal minority has insisted for years that the poison wasn’t from cooking oil at all, and that the Spanish government has been engaged in a cover-up. These people, who include the director of the hospital where the first victims were taken, say a more likely culprit is tomatoes – specifically, residue from organo-phosphorous pesticides that were still widely used on them in Spain at that time. The government, according to this narrative, didn’t want to admit that as a possibility because of its potential effect on Spain’s economically important tourism sector. Tainted cooking oil sold to poor Spaniards was supposedly a more acceptable scapegoat.

The truth may never be definitively known, in large part because the investigation into the incident was extremely sloppy. For example, when the government set up an exchange program for people to trade in their suspect oil, no one kept track of where it was coming from or whether anyone in the household had been affected.

The ambiguity lends to the frustration felt by survivors. The ones who gathered in El Prado hinted at suicide if their demands were not met (although no reports of actual suicides surfaced). They want a meeting with the prime minister and, ultimately, help with their medical expenses.

"We are sick. Physically, we are 20 years older than our IDs say," one woman told Reuters.

As far as I can tell, the moral here is: To fight mass food poisoning incidents, or any other public health emergency, have the scientific capabilities and procedures arranged and spelled out ahead of time; and follow the science wherever it may lead, without fear or favor.

We in this country are pretty good about the first part. The second one, sometimes not so much.