Attack of the flesh-eating bananas!

Latest Web hoax slanders America's most beloved fruit.

By Stephen Lemons
Published April 4, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

In a rumor sure to wreak chaos at the Chimp Channel, an e-mail passed along by thousands of credulous netizens has spread the false report that several shipments of Costa Rican bananas to the United States have been infected by the bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis, otherwise known as the "flesh-eating" disease.

According to the erroneous e-mail, signed by a nonexistent "Manheim Research Institute," necrotizing fasciitis has "decimated the monkey population in Costa Rica." Anonymous researchers at the "MRI" state that "the disease has been able to graft itself to the skin of fruits in the region," most notably the banana.

Talk about "Bedtime for Bonzo" -- something like this could spell the end for the Animal Planet channel. Jane Goodall could be forced into early retirement. And what will the knuckle draggers in George W. Bush's campaign staff eat?

(OK, OK. That last bit's unfair -- to the primates.)

Necrotizing fasciitis is caused when certain forms of streptococcus bacteria infect the skin through a cut or a scratch. They attack the subcutaneous (soft) tissue and spread very quickly, leaving dead tissue in their wake. Left untreated, an infection can lead to amputation or death.

The e-mail says the federal government hasn't issued a banana alert for fear of causing a panic. (That's a job for others.) So the e-mail advises everyone to lay off the banana daiquiris and Jell-O pudding pops for two or three weeks, until the scare passes.

If you come down with a fever and a skin infection after noshing on a 'naner, you're supposed to get to an M.D. pronto. If you're more than an hour from a medical center, the e-mail advises, "burn the flesh ahead of the infected area to help slow the spread of the infection." Ouch!

Sure, that may look like a mosquito bite on your arm. But just in case, a bottle of lighter fluid and a box of matches will clean that sucker right up.

Before you fire up your Bunsen burner, check it out: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta says the report is a bunch of hooey that has been going around the Web since January.

"Theoretically, it's possible," explains Chuck Fallis, a CDC spokesman. "But, to our knowledge, the so-called flesh-eating bacteria have not been transmitted via banana."

Seems the usual route of transmission for flesh-eating bacteria is person to person, not banana to person or banana to monkey.

The CDC hasn't been keeping tabs on how many phone calls it has received on the topic, but it does have a banana-rama hot line set up at (404) 371-5375. And its Web site includes information debunking the rumor.

Fallis says the CDC recorded about 800 cases of necrotizing fasciitis in 1998: "That sounds like a lot, until you compare it to several million cases of strep throat each year."

Tim Debus, vice president of the International Banana Association, denounces the hoax as a case of Internet terrorism comparable to hacker attacks on popular Web sites. "When we first heard about it in January, it sounded too unbelievable to be believable," says Debus. "But when you're talking about a food product, people will err on the side of caution." Go figure.

Debus says his trade organization doesn't have figures indicating whether the prank has affected sales, but he reports that his office has gotten hundreds of inquiries about it in the past three months. And the e-mail is still showing up in people's mailboxes. No one seems to know where the rumor started.

He says it's a particularly insidious rumor considering the fact that Americans consume upward of 28 pounds of bananas per capita in a given year and that 98 percent of all U.S. households have purchased bananas in the past month. I guess America's the original "Banana Republic."

For David Mikkelson, who runs the respected Urban Legends Reference Pages with his wife, Barbara, it's a typical Internet hoax. Among other popular ones out there: tampons are made with asbestos; KFC has been raising genetically altered chickens; and antiperspirants cause breast cancer.

"A common facet of these rumors is that people are willing to believe the most outrageous things about governments and large corporations," says Mikkelson. "We always distrust the big guys, as if the little guys could never do this."

Mikkelson's fave involves the baby formula Enfalac. According to this particular hoax, when mixed with a drug found in dog food, it can cause a toddler's stomach to explode. Supposedly, a child ate some dog food by accident after ingesting Enfalac, and blammo, baby go boom!

Of course, there's no truth to it. But the more outrageous the story, the more difficult it is to forget.

Technically, most hoaxes and medical scares are not urban legends, as urban legends involve narratives that happen to "a friend of a friend," but the Mikkelsons include them on their Web site anyway.

They must be doing something right; even the CDC's Web site refers readers to for more info. But Mikkelson's somewhat skeptical about the positive effects of debunking rumors. "When people read a newspaper story debunking a rumor about flesh-eating diseases and bananas, what they remember is 'flesh-eating disease' and 'bananas,'" says Mikkelson. "They don't remember that the story was telling them it wasn't true."

Damn. It's enough to drive you bananas.

Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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