It was about 7 o’clock when I woke up. The alarm clock had gone off as expected and I hadn’t overslept. I went to the toilet, washed and shaved. Sometimes when I shave, I get little nicks, cuts or razor burn, but today it was just fine. It was then I noticed a moth on the wall above the towel rail. As it hadn’t been there before I’d gone to bed, I can only assume it had settled there during the night. It wasn’t a rare one or anything – a synanthrope known as a White-shouldered House Moth. Synanthropes are animals and plants that benefit from an association with humans and adapt to human habitats, so it’s not surprising they show up on people’s bathroom walls.
I suppose if it had been a Burnet Moth, it might have been more interesting. Burnets have black wings with vivid red spots that serve as a warning to predators of their noxious taste. They contain a small amount of hydrogen cyanide, which apparently has a bitter, almond-like taste. Frankly, I don’t know why predators would object to that. I mean, I quite like the taste of almonds. I just love macaroons and marzipan. If I was a predator, I think it might be cool to gather up a whole basket of burnet moths, grind them, add sugar, spread the paste onto cakes and sell them.
Imagine how the world would react if I did such a thing. I can see the lurid headlines now: “Mothipan man arrested”, “Bug baker charged with food safety offences”, “Moth cake idea was half-baked, court told.”
In court, my solicitor says cassava contains hydrogen cyanide and it’s a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for around 500 million people. Seeds of fruits like apples, cherries and almonds also contain it in small amounts. In any event, he says, the amount of hydrogen cyanide in the cakes was not sufficient to pose any health risks.
The issue escalates to national media coverage. Leading experts on food composition and analysis are interviewed on television and the whole thing snowballs when a toxicological scientist tells Newsnight that harmful chemicals are commonly found in our food. Jeremy Paxman’s benign expression becomes more and more agitated as the professor starts describing a witches’ brew of dodgy contaminants dribbling through the food chain. “Well, there’s sodium nitrite,” he says, fingering his beard. “It reacts with the stomach acids and causes cancer amongst animals. It can also trigger migraine pains and may be responsible for certain forms of lung disease. But you’ll find it used as a preservative in things like salami, pepperoni, hot dogs and all sorts of processed meats.”
Paxman starts to fidget as the Professor continues: “And then there’s excitotoxins, used as flavouring agents in all kinds of foods like canned soups, sausages, salad dressings and so on. Hmm, yes, you see, monosodium glutamate is an excitotoxin.”
“So what do these exciting toxins do?” Paxman asks facetiously, lowering his eyebrows.
“Excitotoxins?” says the Professor. “Well, apart from being a possible cause of obesity, they can destroy nerve cells, even cause brain damage in children.”
Paxman turns slightly pale and shifts his head to one side. “But the amounts are controlled, presumably?”
“Well, no.” the Professor explains. “The Food Standards Agency claims they’re as safe as salt or pepper. There are no limits on how much of them can be added to food.”
Panic ensues. The papers are full of it. Questions are asked in the House of Commons. Despite opposition from the food lobby, new legislation is proposed, but the public cannot overcome its fear of “Frankenstein foods” and the furore goes on until the Prime Minister is forced to appear on television to placate the nation.
My ears prick up as he says: “I can assure you that these chemicals have not just been cooked up in a laboratory somewhere. As you know, this all started with a scare about hydrogen cyanide, which, I am reliably informed by my top scientific advisors, probably played a part in the origin of life itself.” Unfortunately, all his assertions and pledges are to no avail. Many in the media castigate him for siding with the Moth Cake Man. Within a couple of weeks, his government falls…
Anyway, I remind myself, as I splash my face and reach for the towel, it’s not a Burnet Moth. Just a White-shouldered House Moth.
This story is included in a collection of short stories entitled ‘Stirring The Grass and Other Stories’, available in paperback and Kindle formats:
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