Doctors should consider the intentional addition of medicine to food as a potential cause of foodborne disease outbreaks.
A 2010 foodborne disease outbreak in Beijing, China was a result of clonidine, a medication used to treat hypertension and ADHD, being intentionally added to lunch ingredients. Eighty travelers who had just finished lunch in a Beijing restaurant began to feel faint. Within a few hours they developed dizziness, weakness, lethargy, dry mouth, and nausea, among other troublesome symptoms. At a nearby hospital, the travelers were treated for low blood pressure and low heart rate. With no response to treatment, the patients were referred for a screening for common toxins and drugs. The screening found clonidine in the patients’ systems. The patients were treated for clonidine poisoning and symptoms resolved in all patients within 48 hours. After six days, all patients had been discharged from the hospital and at one year no patients had residual symptoms. An investigation found that two persons put clonidine into the starch used to make certain dishes (the kitchen staff would not notice the addition because starch and clonidine are both white, odorless powders) to gain a competitive advantage for a nearby restaurant.
A Foodborne Disease Outbreak With an Unusual Cause, Yong Wang, MD, PhD; Hanbin Wang, MD, PhD; Shaofu Qiu, PhD; Xishan Xiong, MD; Xiaoling Liu, MD; and Hongbin Song, MD, PhD, Ann Intern Med. 1 January 2013;158(1):75-76