E-mail Claims Fruit Spread Flesh-Eating Bacteria
Feb. 25, 2000
By David Noack
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (APBnews.com) -- The attack of the killer bananas?
A trade group says absolutely not and is trying to squelch an Internet rumor that has been circulating by e-mail claiming that bananas from Costa Rica carry the "flesh-eating" bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis.
International Banana Association (IBA) Vice President Tim Debus calls the rumor "just another case of Internet terrorism like the recent hacker attacks on popular Web sites."
The e-mail, which has been around since late January and is still circulating, purports to come from the Manheim Research Institute of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta -- home of the real Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the respected U.S. government agency.
The "urgent warning" claims that necrotizing fasciitis has decimated the monkey population of Costa Rica and that researchers have recently discovered "the disease has been able to graft itself to the skin of fruits in the region, most notably the banana." Readers are warned that the infection can eat "2 to 3 centimeters of flesh an hour" and that amputation is likely and death possible.
After warning readers to avoid buying bananas for two to three weeks and advising getting medical help immediately if they develop a fever, the message attempts to cash in on suspicion of government.
"The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] has been reluctant to issue a countrywide warning because of fear of nationwide panic," the message says. "They have secretly admitted that they feel upwards of 15,000 Americans will be affected by this but that these are acceptable numbers."
The allegations prompted the CDC to debunk the claim, advising that the bacteria usually associated with the disease "frequently live in the human body."
Concerns voiced to CDC
"The usual route of transmission for these bacteria is from person to person," the advisory says. "Sometimes, they can be transmitted in foods, but this would be an unlikely cause for necrotizing fasciitis. FDA and CDC agree that the bacteria cannot survive long on the surface of a banana."
A spokeswoman for the CDC said officials have received more than 100 calls from people wanting to know the source of the claim and whether or not it's true.
The National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation, which researches the disease and offers support and education services, said the disease is not spread the way the hoax claims.
"The mere ingestion of these bacteria would only make you sick with vomiting or diarrhea, and I'm sure this has happened to many people already as part of normal human life," said Dr. John Shieh, a consulting physician in Los Angeles. "However, this will not cause you to get a necrotizing fasciitis. Don't worry about the bananas, anyway. Most of them you buy are from the USA."
Disrupting the economy?
Debus said the group has not contacted law enforcement and is just trying to get the word out that the allegations are false.
He said the hoax points up another way that cyber-pranksters can disrupt the economy. However, Debus said he has not seen any figures indicating a decline in banana sales.
Chiquita Brands International Inc., the banana producer, issued a statement denying the allegations.
"The report currently circulating on the Internet concerning Costa Rican bananas being contaminated with a rare bacteria is totally false," the company said. "Chiquita has received no reports of such contamination, and we have checked with the pertinent U.S. government agencies, which also confirm no reports of such contamination."
This is not the first Internet food hoax.
KFC targeted for fake chickens
Earlier this year, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) was hit with the rumor that they do not use real chickens in their products, and to make the claim appear real, the allegation came from a study purportedly conducted by the University of New Hampshire.
KFC officials released a statement suggesting that the hoax was malicious.
"This Internet hoax is intended to destroy the trust that you have placed in KFC to provide high-quality chicken meals at all of our restaurants," company officials said in a statement. "Although we hope that readers of the hoax will recognize it as obviously false, we take this or any other attack on the quality of KFC's product seriously."
Rose Miller, a computer security specialist with the Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC), which is part of the federal Department of Energy, posts hoax information as a public service.
"We tell people how to do their own evaluations and don't believe everything you receive in an e-mail, on Web sites, because anybody can post anything," said Miller.