Vietnam rejects bug eating as West embraces it

Thanh Nien News

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A rash of deaths linked to insect-eating this summer has prompted doctors to issue warnings about toxic fungi and natural venoms found in bugs at a time when the UN appears to be pushing them as a future source of safe protein. 

On May 4 a platter of 30 stir-fried cicada nymphs killed one man and left two others in critical condition in the southern province of Binh Phuoc.

Survivors of the meal claimed they stopped eating midway through the meal after feeling unwell.

All of the men were rushed to Binh Phuoc General Hospital several hours later suffering poisoning symptoms including seizures and vomiting. Three slipped into comas.

After four days of treatment, the oldest of them, 59, died while two others, 29 and 41, were saved.

Dr Pham Tri Dung, head of the emergency department at Cho Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, said four men they treated last year for cicada nymph poisoning had tested positive for a harmful fungi that lives on the insects.

The patients, aged 35 to 63 years, spent days in comas.

Another case of cicada nymph poisoning sent 15 people in the south-central province of Binh Thuan to hospital on May 14.

The group had collected the nymphs from their fields; doctors later discovered the toxic fungi on the creatures.

The incidents prompted the Food Safety and Hygiene Department at the Ministry of Health to issue warnings that meals made of grasshoppers, bees, cicadas, termites, silkworm pupae and several kinds of worms had caused a number of recent deaths.

The department warned that the bugs don't just carry fungi, but also poisonous tree resins and warned that many release their own toxins when they die.

Cicada nymphs, they noted, live underground and may spend time attached to dangerous fungi. 

UN endorses entomorphagy
Thanh Nien News's efforts to determine the specific names of these fungi and the tests used to detect them failed. But the new edict against eating insects comes at a time when adventurous gourmets and policymakers throughout the West are increasingly pushing entomophagy--the practice of eating bugs.  

Last summer, Insect enthusiasts in America were publicly extolling the virtues of dining on raw cicadas in mainstream publications like Time magazine and National Geographic. The stories came out during a 17-year boom in the buzzing insects that caused a deafening buzz throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

The news of the cicada-related poisonings came as a surprise to Professor Kathie Hodge, a systematic mycologist at Cornell University's Department of Plant Pathology. Hodge identified a series of mushrooms featured in a Vietnamese news broadcast about the poisonings as Cordyceps--a diverse group of fungi that attacks insects.

"I don't know of any poisonings related to these fungi, which are more often considered medicinal," she wrote via email.

Hodge also wondered what tests could have been used to reveal the fungi and whether improper storage had left the bugs moldy prior to their consumption.

In general, there seems to be little scientific consensus on the overall safety of eating bugs.  

Last year, the UN' Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report on eating insects which noted that while some researchers have argued that "no significant health problems have arisen from the consumption of edible insects," wild caught insects have been known to bioaccumulate mercury or gather high quantities of pesticides and have, anecdotally, caused myriad problems for diners as far afield as Nigeria and Italy.

The report urged consumers of insects to treat them like any other meat product and recommended starving or "de-gutting" them for a few days prior to consuming them.

The report opened, however, by endorsing  the eating of insects: "healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish (from ocean catch)."

No insect Viagra An Giang
Vu Quoc Trung, member of Vietnam Traditional Medicine Association, recently warned that silkworm pupae can be harmful. A dual richness in moisture and protein means they're an ideal environment for the development of microbes. 

Trung said some poisoning cases related to silkworm pupae may have also been caused by preservative chemicals the restaurants used to keep them fresh. 

Silkworm pupae also release histamines that cause allergic reactions such as itching and rashes, he said.

Trung also cautioned insect enthusiasts from drinking scorpion or centipede rice wine, which has sent several men to hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, rendering them unconscious or causing difficulty breathing.

Months of fermenting won't break down their venom, Trung claimed.

“People should only use the wine for external massage; they shouldn't drink it.”

The herbalist also dismissed a standing belief in the libidinous properties that has fueled a rush on May Bug in the Mekong Delta’s An Giang Province.

Buyers from in and outside the province have flocked to Nha Bang market in the province’s Tinh Bien District and bought up the entire stock by nine in the morning.

During the beginning of the rush, the bugs sold for VND10,000 per thousand, but rumors about their aphrodisiac effect pushed prices up seven-fold.

“May bugs have no effect on men’s health,” Trung said.

He said the bug is not used in any herbal medicinal formula.

He warned diners of the risks of being poisoned by pesticides as the bugs often live on rice plants.

Lam Chi Binh, a delta local, said he used to visit friends in An Giang often and often sought the bugs out as a natural "treatment."

But Binh said he stopped eating them because they wore him out.

Residents of the province gave up eating cicadas after a rash of poisoning cases dating back to 2009.

Lam Quoc Hung, who heads the provincial poison control center said people should “absolutely avoid eating any strange or dead insects, those that are only half-cooked or those cooked straight away without initial processing.”

Last month, 37 people from six families in the northern mountainous province of Lai Chau were hospitalized after sharing around four kilograms of black bugs.

Several members of the group were initially hospitalized on June 12 and took until the end of the month to recover.

One elderly man never recovered.

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