Testing for Poison Still a Profession for Some

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Employing food tasters to test for poison may seem like an anachronism in the 21st century, but the profession has enjoyed a recent resurgence. Earlier this month, President Obama made headlines when a food taster tested his food in France, and last summer, Olympic officials fed milk, salad and rice (among other things) to white mice to test food for safety and thus prevent food poisoning in athletes.

Testing food for poison goes back to the ancient Egyptians and the Roman Empire, wrote John Emsley, a professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge, in an email.

For example, Halotus was the official taster for Roman Emperor Claudius. He's famous because he failed at his job. Claudius was killed by poison in A.D. 54 (and Halotus was a suspect in the murder). But in all fairness, what chance did Halotus, or any taster, have to warn their employers?

Chemicals like arsenic trioxide, cyanide, strychnine and atropine have traditionally been used to poison people. Of those, only cyanide can kill within minutes, thus giving the tester enough time to fulfill his job description by notifying others of the tainted meal, Emsley said. If given in large doses, alkaloid poisons like strychnine and atropine can kill within 24 hours, while arsenic would make the victim vomit within a few hours and possibly die within a day.

Because noticing the effects of poison can take so long—I doubt royals, presidents or other dignitaries would wait an entire day to eat their food—I tend to think that the taster was like a placebo. The taster made the royal eater feel safer, but didn't really protect him or her. Then again, if I were royal, I would take as many precautions as possible to avoid death and feel safe about enjoying my food.

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