Jan. 23, 2023

The Spanish Cooking Oil Disaster

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The Spanish cooking oil disaster is one of the most devastating instances of mass food poisoning in history. 42 years later, innocent people still suffer from the long-term life-altering effects of Toxic Oil Syndrome.

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Curiel, M. (2021). 40 aniversario Así ocurrió, así contamos la intoxicación por aceite de colza en España. RVTE.https://www.rtve.es/noticias/20210531/asi-ocurrio-asi-contamos-colza/2096404.shtml

Gelpí, E., de la Paz, M. P., Terracini, B., Abaitua, I., de la Cámara, A. G., Kilbourne, E. M., Lahoz, C., Nemery, B., Philen, R. M., Soldevilla, L., Tarkowski, S., & WHO/CISAT Scientific Committee for the Toxic Oil Syndrome. Centro de Investigación para el Síndrome del Aceite Tóxico (2002). The Spanish toxic oil syndrome 20 years after its onset: a multidisciplinary review of scientific knowledge. Environmental health perspectives, 110(5), 457–464.https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.110-1240833

Nicholson, S. (1987). Spain's 'trial of the century' begins with protests.UPI.https://www.upi.com/Archives/1987/03/30/Spains-trial-of-the-century-begins-with-protests/4458544078800/  

Plataforma Sindrome Toxico “Seguimons Viviendo” last updated July 2022.https://plataformaseguimosviviendo.blogspot.com/

Riding, A. (1989). Trial in Spain on Toxic Cooking Oil Ends in Uproar.New York Times (archives).https://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/21/world/trial-in-spain-on-toxic-cooking-oil-ends-in-uproar.html 

Staff writer. (1989). Defendants In Spanish Toxic Oil Trial Await Verdict.AP News.https://apnews.com/article/3b061134f86c62072edbee6d92a25968

Staff writer. (2021) Factbox: Fake olive oil scandal that caused Spain's worst food poisoning epidemic in 1981. Reuters.https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/fake-olive-oil-scandal-that-caused-spains-worst-food-poisoning-epidemic-1981-2021-10-19/

Staff writer. (2022). History: Jaime Vaquero, the first person poisoned by rapeseed oil in Spain. Diario de Torrejon.https://www.diariodetorrejon.es/historia-jaime-vaquero-el-primer-envenenado-por-aceite-de-colza-de-espana/

Terracini B. (2004). The limits of epidemiology and the Spanish Toxic Oil Syndrome. International journal of epidemiology, 33(3), 443–444.https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyg010

Viana, I. (2011). La colza mató a mi hijo camino del hospital, en brazos de su madre. ABC History.https://www.abc.es/historia/abci-aceite-colza-jaime-garcia-201106120000_noticia.html?ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F

Woffinden, B. (2021) Cover-up. The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/education/2001/aug/25/research.highereducation

World Health Organization (1992). Toxic oil syndrome: current knowledge and future perspectives. Copenhagen, WHO Regional Office for Europe. WHO Regional Publications, European Series, No. 42.

World Health Organization (2001). Toxic Oil Syndrome - 10 years of progress. Copenhagen, WHO Regional Office for Europe. Edited by Terracini, B.https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/98447/E84423.pdf

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Hi everyone, I’m Sarah.


B:& I’m Becca! And you’re listening to Unsavory. 


Becca and I recently did a presentation all about misleading food labels, and so I wanted to do an episode that tied into that same fascinating topic. Food labels, for the most part, are very tightly regulated. But there are many instances in which people have taken advantage of the labelling system, mostly to label a product as something it is not. 


B:We’ve talked about this a couple times on the podcast before. In our episodes on organic food fraud, the codfather and the European horsemeat scandal…am I forgetting any?


Mmm we talk about the “superfood” label in the avocado cartel episode, but I think you covered the big ones! 


So for today’s episode, I’m covering one of the most devastating circumstances to ever stem from a labelling mishap (or scam) which led to the largest mass poisoning in Spanish history. I’m talking about the Spanish Cooking Oil Disaster also known as Toxic Oil Syndrome, and buckle up Becca, because there really isn’t a happy ending to this one. 


B:Ouff, okay! I’m ready. 


Let’s do it!


Intro music


For such a devastating and interesting story from a consumer perspective, there are very few digestible sources of information about the Spanish Cooking Oil Disaster, also known as Toxic Oil Syndrome. There are 300-page WHO investigative documents (which isn’t exactly good bedtime reading) and plenty of research studies on the chemistry of the toxic compounds, but there really isn’t a good synopsis of the social side of the event, which is what makes a good story. And this event continues to impact people’s lives today to a pretty extreme degree, so I was surprised that I couldn’t find any documentaries, podcasts, or NYT editorials on this topics. Granted, this happened in 1981, but I’m still surprised at how inaccessible information about this disaster is, and by the end of this story, I will share one theory as to why that is. 


B:Oh wow, I smell a coverup.


I’d like to believe it’s not, but some people think it is… So for my sources I research papers, the hefty WHO document, and translated articles from Spanish news outlets using Google translate (which isn’t perfect), all of which are linked in the show notes at unsavorypodcast.com. Specifically,Limits of Epidemiology and the Spanish Toxic Oil Syndromeby Benedetto Terracini andThe Spanish Toxic Oil Syndrome 20 years after it’s onset: A multidisciplinary review of Scientific Knowledgeby Gelpi et al. 


In May 1981, a never-before-seen combination of devastating physical symptoms broke out in the Torrejon (torra-hone) region of Madrid in central Spain and quickly became an epidemic. Throughout the course of the epidemic, nearly 30,000 people would develop symptoms. A confirmed 300 people died in the early days with estimates as high as 5000 deaths over the following decade, and thousands would live the rest of their lives with devastating physical limitations including chronic pain, limb deformities, liver disease, scleroderma (hardening of the skin), bone deformations, premature aging, paralysis, and cachexia.


B:Whatever this is, it sounds terrible already.


It all started on May 1, 1981, when an 8-year-old boy, Jaime Vaquero Garcia, suddenly fell ill and died in his mother’s arms on the way to La Paz Hospital in Madrid. The family had taken Jamie to the doctor earlier in the day after noticing he had respiratory symptoms, and he was prescribed cough syrup and told to go to the hospital if things got worse, which they did. Even if Jamie had made it to the hospital, nursing and medical staff were already shocked and overwhelmed by an influx of people with respiratory symptoms that they had never seen before. When the Vaquero family arrived at the hospital, the doctors learned the entire family was experiencing these symptoms - Jamie’s five brothers and sisters were also ill. Doctors had them all brought in and put one of the girls into intensive care. The other four children were transferred to Madrid’s infectious disease hospital, Hospital del Rey, where doctors began treating them with antibiotics for what they thought was atypical pneumonia. 


Jamie and his family lived in a neighbourhood in Torrejón, where seemingly overnight many neighbours had also begun to fall mysteriously ill. The initial symptoms were flu-like: fever, breathing difficulties, vomiting and nausea, with patients soon developin pulmonary edema (the build-up of fluid in the lungs), skin rashes and muscle pain. Rumours started to swirl about where this mysterious illness could have come from. One of the earliest theories was the US military airforce base nearby. Whispers of possible food poisoning from onions, strawberries, asparagus, and chicken were suggested. Early reports that the disease might be carried by cats, dogs, and birds led to the slaughter of many pets and livestock (B:Noooo!). I know. Without a definitive answer, the media and citizens formed their own best guesses. And soon, more plausible theories would emerge… 


Meanwhile, at the hospital, Dr. Antonio Muro, arrived at work the following morning, he was alarmed to be told that these new patients were being treated for pneumonia despite their atypical presentation. He suspected almost immediately that this was not pneumonia. 


This went on for a few days, and Dr. Muro soon told the media his leading theory - he believed the mysterious outbreak was due to food poisoning. He was not the first to float this theory; another physician, Dr. Peralta, the head of endocrinology at La Paz hospital had already told a newspaper that the symptoms of the illness were best described by “poisoning by organophosphates”. 


B:What’s that?


S: Organophosphates are a group of pesticides used in agriculture which can be dangerous with high levels of exposure, and some of the early symptoms of this mysterious illness were similar to organophosphate toxicity. 


After Dr. Peralta floated this theory publicly, he allegedly received a call from the Ministry of Health ordering him to say nothing more about the epidemic until a source could be identified and verified. 


Dr. Muro was in full investigative mode for the food poisoning theory - he produced maps of the outbreak neighbourhoods and believed that whatever was causing the symptoms was being sold at the local weekly street markets which were set up in different neighbourhoods on different days. This made the most sense because the casualties were all coming from the apartment blocks of the communities and towns surrounding the capital; almost no one from Madrid itself appeared to be affected at this time. Using this information, Dr. Muro was able to successfully predict the location of the next wave of outbreaks, so he was definitely on to something. 


Dr. Muro also questioned relatives of those afflicted with the mystery illness and told them to try and remember exactly what the victims may have eaten that the other unaffected family members may not have eaten. They quickly had a leading offender: salads. 


B:Ohh my gosh. I know where this story is going because you’ve already mentioned it’s an oil disaster but salads get off so easily when it comes to food poisoning…but are a big offender. I feel like romaine lettuce is constantly dishing out e coli…and we’re out here paying $8.99 for it. I’m so not surprised that the offender is salads.


I know, they seem so innocent but they are high moisture and can easily carry bacteria if not washed properly! Do you know what gave you food poisoning in Mexico? 




Okay, so salads were the likely offender for food poisoning, but there can be a lot of components in a salad - the veggies, cheese, maybe meats, dressing…


Dr. Muro’s main hypothesis, much like Dr. Peralta, was that the poisoning was caused by tomatoes containing organophosphate residues. After publicly reporting his theory on May 15, Dr. Muro was allegedly suddenly informed that he was relieved of his duties as hospital director, with immediate effect. 


B:Pretty sus… 


Right? And of course, very little information available about this. I have no idea how or why or if it was justified, but the timing seems less than ideal. 


The Spanish government was in full panic mode at this point. Nearly a full month into the epidemic, nothing had turned up to explain the strange symptoms and people wanted answers. Aa plausable answer came from Dr. Juan Oliver, director of the Hospital Infantil, told the government that he'd found the cause of the epidemic. He'd asked 210 of the children in his care, and apparently, they'd all consumed cooking oil.


This theory seemed sound and the government accepted it fairly quickly. After all, adulterated olive oil was nothing new in Spain where illicit oils could be purchased for much cheaper. 


On June 10, an official announcement was made on late-night television, informing the public that the epidemic was most likely caused by chemical contamination of illicitly manufactured rapeseed oil that had been used for years as a cheap alternative to expensive olive oil. (B:sooo the culprit was canola oil?!) Essentially yes! Canola oil is the genetically modified version of rapeseed oil, and canola is often used for food while rapeseed is often used for industrial purposes. 


After the announcement that cooking oil was the culprit, the epidemic actually quickly dropped off. The peak of the epidemic was reached in mid-June with approximately 600 hospital admissions per day, but following the announcement, new admissions dropped sharply as people discarded their cooking oils. This rapid decline would act as further evidence that adulterated rapeseed oil was the cause of the epidemic. This theory would be further supported by community surveys that followed, but any dietary information that was collected from the public was inevitably biased. 


Just when it was starting to feel like the epidemic was finally over, the chronic phase began. This epidemic had three different clinical phases: the acute phase in which those affected presented “atypical pneumonia” symptoms - cough, fever; the intermediate phase in which more serious symptoms developed such as blood clots, pulmonary hypertension and edema, cramps and intense muscle pain appeared. And finally, the chronic phase, is characterized by cachexia, muscle wasting, liver disease, scleroderma (that’s the hardening of the skin again), limb deformities, and neuropathy (a general term for nerve conditions). No such infectious or toxic syndrome with these exact symptoms had ever been recorded before, and 42 years later, many of these victims still suffer on a daily basis.


B:Jebus, what was in this oil?


Excellent question! One that still hasn’t been answered with 100% certainty… but we’ll get there. Three weeks after the television announcement, the health ministry allowed families to hand in their supposedly contaminated oil and it would be replaced with pure olive oil. This exchange programme was allegedly mishandled, with few authentic records kept of who was exchanging what or whether the oil came from affected or unaffected households. So people were just like - great, free olive oil!


B: That seems like an oversight… 


Yes, but expensive olive oil was guaranteed in return, and many people simply handed in any oil they could find, even motor oil. Most of the oil that likely caused the epidemic was never available for scientific analysis because the instinctive reaction of most families was to throw it away as soon as they found out! But this did help create a repository of oils which turned out to be an important tool for later studies. Some of the samples did show the presence of toxic substances in higher quantities than normal, which would kickstart a decades-long investigation into how these substances could have been formed and they could have caused this never-before-seen illness.


In March 1983, the World Health Organization convened in Madrid to review the epidemiological, clinical, and toxicology findings of the epidemic. By 1987, the ongoing epidemiological investigation would lead to the development of the leading theory as to how this epidemic could have happened: Rapeseed oil is very similar to canola oil, except rapeseed oil is intended exclusively for industrial use and not safe for human ingestion. The poisonous oil was sold for several months to unsuspecting working-class families without any oversight or control (B:ohhh noooo). Greedy importers and distributors had likely been diverting oil that was imported from France and used industrially in the iron and steel industry and rebranding it as olive and sunflower oil for human consumption. This oil was sold in plastic jugs for a bargain price at the street markets in the neighbourhoods surrounding Madrid. 



By January 1987, those who had been affected by Toxic Oil Syndrome were 6 years into their daily struggle with symptoms, and many others continued to grieve the losses of their loved ones. The public was still fearful that something like this could happen again, as olive oil fraud was not a new development in Spain. 


B:Wait, so how long do they think people were consuming this rapeseed oil for?


It seems like about 1-1.5 months. The first symptoms showed up around May 1 and the announcement was made around June 10 and then the cases started to drop off. But those that were struggling multiple years in, were (and are) dealing with the chronic phase of the illness. 


So in 1987, thousands of survivors began to organize themselves into a group called “We Keep Living” to advocate for survivors' rights and for criminal prosecution. 


On March 30, 1987, what would be known as the “Spanish trial of the century” began at the Casa de Campo. This would be the longest trial in the history of Spain, with Judge Alfonso Barcala leading the trial for 37 defendents from the oil industry. Victims and loved ones crowded at the door and craned their necks to get a glimpse of the action. And so began a trial that would last 15 months, with testimony from hundreds of victims and relatives of those who have died from the illness, and would take another 11 months to reach a verdict. 


Of the 37 defendants, only 13 would receive charges. The harshest sentences went to oil importer Juan Manuel Bengoechea and oil distributors Ramon Ferrero and Jorge Pich. The three were convicted of gross professional negligence for importing and distributing fraudulent oil at local markets. Prosecutors say the men conspired in the spring of 1981 to sell rapeseed oil that had been denatured with aniline dye and intended for industrial use only as cheap olive oil. Bengoechea and Pich also were convicted of violating the public health code, and Ferrero was found guilty of fraud. Of the 37 defendants, not a single one was found guilty of manslaughter. 


B:Wow…and only the one received any prison time?


I think the three main guys received prison time, but I really had a hard time finding clear information about the sentencing. Regardless, it wasn’t enough, and at the time, Spain did not have jury trials and I do wonder if the outcome would have been different if they had.


The victims and the public were outraged. Special riot police were called in to clear the courtroom. Police outside the court fired rubber bullets in the air to disperse the protesting crowds, who broke windows as they tried to get back inside. Thankfully, no injuries were reported from this riot. 


The judges also ordered payment of compensation of the equivalent of $125,000 to relatives of each person who died of poisoning and sums ranging from $1,250 to $750,000 to survivors, depending on the severity of their permanent injuries. As of 1989, the Spanish government had paid about $400 million in indemnities and health care for those still suffering from the effects of the illness, so you can only imagine how much has been paid out since then, although I couldn’t find an exact figure. 


Despite the trial, which many feel was an unsatisfactory outcome, that isn’t the only reason why conspiracy theories still swirl to this day about whatreallycaused the Toxic Oil Syndrome. 


Despite the formation of investigative committees, including the WHO Scientific Committee for the Toxic Oil Syndrome, the exact cause of the illness remains somewhat of a mystery to this day. There is a strong leading theory, but some questions still remain and that’s saying a lot since over 2 decades, a heroic amount of scientific effort has gone into the identification of the causal agent and determining the pathology of Toxic Oil Syndrome. 


Hundreds of research studies have been conducted, embracing epidemiology, toxicology, clinical medicine, in vitro and in vivo studies and, most recently, immunology. The leading theory is that the oil was denatured with 2% aniline (​​which isindustrially significant commodity chemical), then illegally refined to remove the aniline, and finally mixed with edible oils before being sold to consumers. Somewhere in this process, the batch of oil formed fatty acid esters of PAP which have been found in higher proportions in the oils consumed in 1981. PAP stands for 3-(N-phenylamino) -1,2-propanediol, so I’m going to stick with PAP. In studies, they have also been able to recreate the refinement process and synthesize oil using the same techniques as the ones suspected for the bad batches and have been able to obtain similar high levels of PAPs. Further, oil samples from 1981 often contained three different types of PAPs. So seems promising, However, when these three PAPs were given to laboratory animals, one was shown not to be acutely toxic, one was toxic only after injection but not after oral ingestion, and one was toxic only after injection of very high doses. Therefore, none of these three substances has been able to be definitively linked to Toxic Oil Syndrome, although due to obvious ethical reasons, they are unable to be tested on humans which could have very different results. 


So we do have a theory - a strong one at that, but it’s a situation that scientists have been unable to definitively reproduce to prove this theory without a shadow of a doubt. However, the available epidemiological research and findings indicated causality to the point where it was legally accepted by the Spanish Court in 1987. 


Add to this that there actually aren’tanyevidence-based alternative theories. The PAP esters from the aninline denaturation during an illicit manufacturing process seems highly plausible. 


Yet, there are many articles in the Spanish media and even one in the Guardian that propose the idea that the WHO and Spanish government engaged in an elaborate cover-up using adulterated oil as a scapegoat. There is no evidence to support this, but let’s discuss it anyways because from what I could gather from Spanish news articles, public opinion seems to be divided. 


B:And who doesn’t love a conspiracy theory.


Buckle up! The article in the Guardian is called “Cover Up” and it was written by investigative journalist Bob Woffinden, who investigated Toxic Oil Syndrome in the 1980s. Woffinden calls the Spanish Oil Disaster “prototype contemporary scientific fraud” as he shares his opinion that the disaster had nothing to do with oil. Woffinden argues that fraudulent oil would only help boost Spain’s own olive oil industry, as people would stop buying the cheap stuff if it was suspected to be unsafe. Woffinden seems to support Dr. Muro’s original theory that tomatoes and organophosphates, and proposed that revealing this information to the public would have devastated Spain’s tomato industry. The tomatoes in question would have hailed from Almeria, in the southeast corner of Spain which was once a desert area and crops required the assistance of nutrients, fertilizers and pesticides to grow. Woffiden writes “Although exactly what happened may never be known, it is likely that one farmer had used the chemicals too liberally, or had harvested the crop too quickly after applying them. Neither would have been surprising. Some of the farmers were illiterate and would have had difficulty with the instructions for use on the containers of chemicals.” Woffiden also calls into question the quality of the epidemiological studies that point toward the oil theory. 


B:Okok so that doctor may have been right all along. Do you believe the tomato theory?


Well I can’t believe it because there is no actual evidence offered to support the theory. And while some of the symptoms of organophosphate toxicity overlap with some of Toxic Oil Syndrome, there are some differences. Plus, I really would like to believe that when the WHO and some of Europe’s top scientists put 2 decades of effort into research and release a 300 page public document, it’s not just an elaborate cover up. So, I think the toxic oil theory has more merit, but do wonder if the inconclusive evidence is the reason that it is difficult to find information about this event. 


Given that this occurred 42 years ago now, it seems unlikely that alternative theories will continue to develop at this point. What really matters at the end of the day is that the victims still remain devastated by the mark that Toxic Oil Syndrome has left on their lives. 


Just recently, in October of 2021, 6 victims occupied a premier Madrid art museum with a sign that read: “40 years poisoned and condemned to live as in 1981 because of the abandonment of the government.”


In a public statement, the members of “We Keep Living” or “We Are Still Alive” - not sure with the translation - threatened to end their lives by taking pills if the government did not respond to their demands to meet with the prime minister and additional money for medical expenses. The protest ended without any lives being lost, so I hope that their demands were met. 


Overall, I find this story immensely sad and unsatisfying. This is a devastating instance of mass poisoning with an incomplete answer despite decades of scientific investigation, which is a bit of a sad reality sometimes when it comes to situations like this. One small positive, like with many of these stories, is that TOS called attention to the need to strengthen food safety regulations and their enforcement, and for consumers to purchase from reputable sources as often as possible.


B:You’re right. It’s sad that it took such a tragedy to bring attention to food safety regulations. I find it super suspicious that I knew NOTHING about this before today…and that the media coverage has been so limited. It does really make you wonder why.Did the men who went to prison ever confess or anything? 


There is almost NO information about them online. At all. Just brief 1-sentence mentions of their names in an article, but no pictures, no back story, no previous convictions, nothing! And I’m really curious as to why, because this is a huge, shocking story that doesn’t seem to have been reported widely on by the Western media. Honestly, the most helpful articles I found were on Spanish news outlets using Google translate. 


B:Tragic but really interesting story. Thanks Sarah! Great job.


Thank you!! Major depresso though. I hope your next episode has a happier ending!