- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 1 April 2010 08.00 BST
Following what was described as the most anticipated release of a novel variety of produce in years, over two dozen consumers have become sick after eating the so-called "Pineberry." Public health experts are worried that more cases may be on the way.
The Pineberry is a pale variety of strawberries that is bred to have the flavor and aroma of pineapples. Waitrose Market unveiled the new fruit on March 31, intending to sell it for a five-week period. The fruits sell for £2.99 per 125g punnet and were sold out on their first day.
"People loved them in taste tests" said store manager Richard Unkin. "We just didn't expect to get cleaned out so fast. We're rushing the next shipment of these delicious berries."
Not all customers are as satisfied. Later the same night, several hospitals reported an alarming number of patients with digestive problems. Each claims to have purchased and consumed the pineberries for their evening dessert. Symptoms are varied but include headaches, vomiting, painful diarrhea and loss of spending cash. Three of the 31 patients affected show signs of inflammation that could be allergic reactions.
"We're taking this very seriously as we do not know what to expect" said Dr. Neil Dubon, director of Food-borne illness response at London Lock Hospital. "We are running test to confirm an allergic response, and we're letting out some blood from the patients to reduce inflammation and are keeping them under close observation. To be certain, we would need a sample of the original food. We had some but I ate them."
Professor Gilles-Eric Linguini, a French food safety expert, has examined some of the hospital's early lab results.
"One woman ate only one berry and had elevated levels of Alkaline Phosphatase in the liver, a sign of toxicity. Since none of the men nor the women who ate lots of berries had this problem, we can say that the effects are sex-dependent and inverse dose-dependent," said Seralini. "This is what we are finding lately with genetically modified foods."
The pineapple-flavored fruits, however, were developed using traditional breeding approaches, not GM technology. A wild variety was found in a remote location in South America and "resurrected" by a strawberry breeder to develop the ghostly fruit. EU regulations do not require that crops developed through cross-breeding be subjected to safety evaulations before they are commercialised.
"Oh, well then its probably fine to eat. These differences only matter if it is GM" said Linguini.
"I like the sharp taste of them" said customer Betty Gorham. "It burns a little on the way down but I think I can get used to that. People are too sensitive these days. Live a little!"
Still, some have been calling for a recall until more detailed research can be conducted on the pale fruit. "They're playing God" said one uninterested customer. Crossing wild plants with cultivated varieties can have unpredictable consequences and introduce foreign proteins that have no history of being consumed safely. But Unkin is convinced that the berries are safe.
"Reports of any connection between our pineberries and these unfortunate cases of illnesses are completely unfounded. I ate some, half a dozen people at corporate ate some. That proves it, doesn't it?"
The pineberries continue to be sold in Waitrose markets in the UK. Read more about the taste of Pineberries with The Guardian's Weekend food editor, Bob Granleese.