Reader Alison asks if there’s much risk from ergot-infected rye today. The answer is not really. Though no ergot-resistant strain of rye has ever been developed, a variety of measures are taken these days to minimize the risk of ergot infection. Rye seeds are carefully screened for evidence of ergot, rye fields are plowed extra deep to keep ergot from germinating after harvest, and different crops are rotated in and out on alternating years. All combined, these various strategies do an excellent job of keeping ergot, and by extension the risk of ergotism, down.
In fact it’s been 55 years since the last known outbreak of ergotism, which occurred in France in 1951. One hundred or so people, most of them immigrants from central Europe, became sick with delusions and other symptoms. Of course the connection between the fungus and the disease had been known for 100 years by that time, and it seems the outbreak was due to an unscrupulous local farmer (and miller) unloading bad grain on new arrivals who didn’t know any better. The only major outbreaks prior to that came in 1927, when 200 people in England and 10,000 people in Russia were afflicted.
Nowadays you scarcely ever hear of ergot, except in pharmaceutical quarters where derivatives of the fungus are used to make the drug ergotamine (a migraine preventative) and ergonovine (used to reduce postpartum bleeding). Interesting, isn’t it, how something so deadly and horrible actually has a modern, constructive use. Another monster brought to heel.