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Sunday, June 29, 2008

DEATH BY CHOCOLATE

I read the headline in the Chicago Sun Times three times: “Another Hazmat Incident At Chocolate Factory”. The words seemed to be English, but they didn’t seem to make sense. Hazards and Chocolate: under what weird and twisted circumstances would those two ideas go together? We let our children eat this stuff! And it could kill them? In what universe is Chocolate a hazard and not a treat? Evidently, in the Chicago universe, that’s where! The Chicago papers were not clear on the details. So I have investigated.
It seems, according to officials at Blommer Chocolate Company, that just before 11AM on Sunday June 9th, for unknown reasons, a white powder used in the manufacture of chocolate gave off a toxic “ammonia-like” gas, which sparked a level two hazardous materials response. A few minutes later the Hazard Materials Team from the Chicago Fire Department reached the fourth floor of the Bloomer Chocolate Company factory at 600 West Kinzie Street, where they found two men unconscious and one incapacitated. They did not record any dangerous levels of gasses, but two of the workers were near death. They were rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where one of those men, Geraldo Castillo, who had worked at the plant for less than a year, was pronounced dead at 11:49 AM. Pending toxicology tests, which will take about six weeks to complete, that is where the matter currently stands. And it all seems rather unlikely.
In fact everything about chocolate seems unlikely. The coca tree only grows within 20 degrees of the equator, because if the temperature ever falls below 59 degrees F, the trees die. The touchy bean seemed rather unlikely to become one of the most popular fruits on earth. But it did, even though it was such trouble to grow and so fragile that the Mayan and Inca rulers had to force their subject tribes to grow Cocoa as a form of tax. And it seems that the first great additive to chocolate was sugar. The Spanish conquistadors used sugar to convert the bitter “xocolatl” (meaning “bitter water”) - because of the alkaloids theobromine and phenetnylamine in the chocolate - into something someone besides the Mayan royalty could actually swallow. But the whole process seems to argue for intelligent design.
First the almond-like cocoa seeds are allowed to ferment in a compost-like pile on the ground for five to seven days. I can certainly understand how that could happen by accident. It’s the same process that humans used to stumble on wine and grain fermentation. Then the seeds are spread out, dried, cleaned, and then roasted. Okay, there could have been a fire in an equatorial rain forest hit by drought. The husk or shell is then removed, leaving behind the chocolate “nibs”, which are then ground up and liquefied. Okay, that could never happen by accident. Somebody had to have done that on purpose. Why? The ground up nibs are now separated between cocoa solids and cocoa butter liquor. Add sugar and you’ve got sweet chocolate. It is so simple. Add powdered milk and you get milk chocolate. But that could hardly kill you: unless you are a dog or a parrot, who can’t digest the theobromime. But the Chicago Sun Times was fairly specific about the death. It said that thirty year old employee Geraldo Castillo had been killed after breathing in an “ammonia-like gas” used in “making” chocolate. Now, I can find only one additive that even comes close to being ammonia - like; Ammonia.
Ammonia is a compound, consisting of one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. The single nitrogen atom has a lone electron in its outer orbit, which means it eagerly mixes in water or air: but not in chocolate. Mixing ammonia with water produces urine. And mixing ammonia with chocolate produces a nasty tasting poisonous chocolate, which sort of defeats the whole purpose of each individual ingredient. And when the urine evaporates it re-releases the ammonia, which is what urine smells like. One can only assumed that when ammonia laced chocolate melts, it also smells like urine. But….
…should the human lungs suck in a concentration of ammonia in as little as 35 parts per million parts of air in as little as 15 minutes, then the human’s lungs are burned, which make it impossible for the surfactant in the lungs to transfer the oxygen in the air to the iron in the blood, and the victim suffocates. And that is what happened to Geraldo Castillo. Somehow he breathed in ammonia while he was making chocolate. And then even with an oxygen mask over his face pumping pure oxygen into his nose and throat, Gerald Castillo died gasping desperately for air in a room filled with air. He might as well have been living on Saturn or Jupiter. How could this have happened? This appears to have an entirely unanticipated side effect of the global economy and an excess of environmental correctness, all brought to you by “Palsgaard”. Now, if you eat chocolate the odds are you have never heard of Palsgaard. If you make chocolate on an industrial scale, this company is world famous. Palsgaard doesn’t make chocolate, but you can’t make chocolate without them, because they make emulsifiers.
An emulsion is a mixture of two un-mixable compounds, like oil and water in salad dressing. If you add an emulsifier, like, say, egg yokes, a bond can be formed (by shaking up the bottle) that will remain stable long enough for you to pour it over your salad. In the case of chocolate the emulsifier is PolyGlycerol PolyRicinoleate 4448, or PGPR 4448, and it is only made by Palsgaard. The second “P” in PGPR stands for Ammonium Phosphatide, and if this was a television documentary on the Discovery Channel, there would be a music sting right here. You make PGPR 4448 out of rapeseed oil and glycerol, which is combined with phosphoric acid at one end, and then, since in an emulsifier everything has to balance, with a stinger of ammonia on the other end.
In the old days (in this case, last year) Blommer Chocolate in Chicago would have used a lecithin as an emulsifier, (which is why you see lecithin listed as an ingredient on so many energy bars, cake and pancake mixes and other food products.) In fact the lecithin and the PGPR 4448 are both used to just keep the chocolate from sticking to the vats it is mixed in. And here, the plot and the Chocolate thickens. Americans make lecithin out of soy beans. But soy beans are often GM plants – G-M standing for Genetically Modified. Folks in Europe are hypersensitive about GM plants, in part because they get most of their soy beans from the U.S., and, you may have heard, we are their competitor. So Euro-Environmentalists (and Euro farmers and Euro food corporations have paid off Euro-politicians who) have made such a boogieman out of GM, read “U.S.” that over the last decade Euro-Envio types have made food companies afraid to even brush past a GM soy bean at a crowded party, for fear of being labeled a “Franken-food”.
Their alternative to the Franken- soy is PGPR 4448. Now choosing PGPR over GM Franken-soy on moral grounds makes no damn sense whatsoever. But when have the Food Police on either side of the Atlantic ever claimed to be logical? On a purely practical level the Blommer Chocolate Company is trying to standardize their chemical formulas for international trade. European officials want to know the chocolate novelty they have just let into their country is not going to make people sick. And Europeans are not used to seeing lecithin on their list of ingredients. PGPR they have known and trusted for the last ten years. And Palsgaard just got a letter from the Bush Food and Drug Administration (thanks again George) saying the FDA has no objection to substituting PGPR for lecithin, one for one. Not that they tested it, but they have labeled PGPR as “GRAS” – generally recognized as safe. What could be simpler?
Death, as it turns out, for the workers at Blommer Chocolate could be as simple. They are facing a learning curve, working with old equipment and a new formula, PGPR 4448. And somehow, it appears, they are now making chocolate with an ammonia stinger. Blommer Chocolate has found a way to extract the ammonia from their chocolate and release it into the atmosphere as ammonium bicarbonate, also called "Bakers' Ammonia". Nobody is quite sure how they did it yet, and nobody wanted them to do it, but they did it.
This is not the end of the world, but you know, it could be, someday. Someday some paper pusher is going to make an assumption that they are really not qualified to make and all of us are going to suck in a great big chunk of ammonia or something equally as deadly, and that will be the end of us all. And it won’t be with a bang, or with a whimper, or even a decent self respecting, “oops.” The stupid fools who kill us all will probably not even be aware of what they did.

And we call this progress. And always have.
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