Fake Plastic Food In Japan Evolved From Less Than Appetizing Origins

Walk through any food court or eatery in Japan and you’ll find yourself face to face with walls of plastic food. These displays are designed to show potential diners exactly what they’ll receive if they order a particular dish, from the portion size to the ingredients right down to the little garnishes. They’re helpful for foreigners who can’t decipher Japanese menus but even the locals have come to depend on the fake food when eating out.

These sample meals have always had an uncanny realism to them – and now we know why. It turns out these plastic food replicas were borne out of a more scientific art form. The original maker of fake food started out creating models of human organs and diseases, with the realistic plastic replicas aimed at helping doctors study illnesses. Pretty soon, restaurants came knocking on the artisan’s door – despite it’s unappetizing origins, they figured fake food was the perfect way to familiarize country folk with the unique fare city restaurants had to offer.Like most things in Japan, the plastic samples don’t come cheap, especially since the food samples are modeled off real dishes and created for each individual restaurant. A life-like plate of plastic sushi or a heaping bowl of fake spaghetti sell for around $100 each, although budget-conscious restaurants can rent their fake food for about $6 a month.

The sample-making company says they haven’t been able to get the concept to take off in the Western world… after learning the less than appetizing story behind the samples, we’re not sure they ever will.

Do you like the idea of plastic food? Do these samples help you pick your meal or are they are turn off?

The Plague Closes Los Angeles Forest

Officials evacuated and closed parts of the Angeles National Forest after finding a dead squirrel that was infected with bubonic plague, the BBC reports.

Scientists are currently examining the squirrel to see if it died of the disease or of other causes. Park officials are using insecticides on squirrel burrows to kill off any fleas, which is how the disease spreads from one animal to another. The Twisted Arrow, Broken Blade and Pima Loops of the Table Mountain campgrounds are closed until further notice, although hiking is still permitted.

The plague killed about a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century but is not nearly as active these days. Only four people have contracted the disease in Los Angeles County since 1984. This map from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows each case of the plague in the United States since 1970. About 80% were of the bubonic variety and most cases were not fatal, since antibiotic treatment is usually successful. In related news, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany are developing an easy test to detect the plague in its early stages.

As you can see, there are two main clusters. New Mexico gets about half of all the human infections in the U.S. In the 1980s, the worst plague decade, it had slightly more than a hundred cases. Worldwide, most plague cases are in south central Africa and east Asia. People tend to get it while engaged in outdoor activities.

Fight Against Malaria Takes Odd New Turn

A new study has found a possible way to stop at least one species of mosquito from giving you malaria – by infecting them with a special strain of bacteria.

Researchers have found that infecting mosquitoes with the Wolbachia bacterium makes it nearly impossible for malaria to survive in the insects, thus keeping them from spreading it to humans, the BBC reports. The technique was tested on Anopheles stephensi, a species that ranges from the Middle East to Asia. An example is shown here in this Wikimedia Commons image. This remarkable photograph shows the insect sucking blood from a human. It’s become so engorged it’s actually ejecting extra blood from its rear end. Sorry if you were eating when you saw this but hey, it’s in the name of science.

The bacteria passed from female mosquitoes to their offspring, opening up the possibility of infecting the entire species. Researchers followed 34 generations of infected mosquitoes and found the bacteria passed on through all of them. The results have been published in the journal Science. A study last year showed the same bacteria can be used to stop dengue fever.

The technique has not yet been tried on Anopheles gambiae, the main source of malaria in Africa.

This potential breakthrough in the fight against malaria is coming along at an important time, now that mosquitoes are developing a resistance to DEET.

London Crossrail Project Unearths Black Death Burial Pit

“Bring out your dead!”

If you lived in London in 1348-50, you’d hear that call a lot. All of Europe was swept with the Black Death, a virulent plague that killed an estimated one-third of the population. London, like other congested urban areas, got hit hard.

Now archaeologists working in London have uncovered a mass grave of Black Death victims, a Crossrail press release reports. Digging ahead of the planned London Crossrail transportation project, the team discovered a mass grave of 13 bodies at Charterhouse Square, an area known as a burial ground during the plague. Pottery from the mid-14th century found at the site helps confirm the identification.

The bodies were laid out neatly in rows, hinting that the burial ground was from the early stages of the Black Death. When the plague was going full force, bodies were simply dumped into giant pits.

Now archaeologists are examining the bones to learn more about how the people lived, including diet, physical health and work-related wear and tear on the body. They also hope to find surviving DNA from the plague to give scientists a better idea of how it developed. Researchers stress that the plague bacteria cannot live for long in the soil and the excavation poses no health risk.

This is only the latest in a series of finds by the Crossrail workers. Earlier we reported on their discovery of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age trackway. The Crossrail project is a high-speed train system that will link 37 stations along 73 miles of track through London. It’s due to open in 2018.

Sadly, the 14th century plague was only the first wave of a persistent contagion. The Black Death returned to London several times, the worst being in 1665-6, when it killed 100,000 Londoners.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

How To Avoid The Flu Epidemic While Traveling

You’ve probably heard reports about the flu epidemic that’s spreading across the country crippling hospitals and leaving thousands of people suffering through the debilitating symptoms of the virus. The Center for Disease Control & Prevention says this year’s flu season is likely to be one of the worst in 10 years. It’s not even the peak of the flu season and already 47 states are experiencing widespread outbreaks.

For travelers, the chances of catching the flu are already higher than normal – all that time spent in crowded and confined spaces with people from all over the globe leaves them vulnerable to picking up the illness. So how can you avoid catching the flu during your travels? Here are six precautions you can take to keep yourself healthy.

1. First and foremost, get a flu shot. While not guaranteed to stop you from getting sick (the current flu shot is said to be 62 percent effective), it’s still the best defense we have. Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, the good news is that the flu shot administered in the U.S. will protect you from most major strains of the virus around the world.

2. Get vaccinated in advance. We’ve written before about how many airports have set up clinics offering flu shots to travelers, and that’s a trend that’s continuing this year. However, it takes some time for the flu shot to take full effect. So if you really want to ensure that you’re protected from the flu, you need to get vaccinated at least two weeks before your trip.

3. Avoid flying out of airports known for spreading disease. With so many people from all over the world milling about, it’s no surprise that airports are a prime place to pick up the flu. However, certain airports are much more dangerous than others when it comes to spreading illnesses, due to factors like travel patterns, connections to other airports, and the amount of time passengers sit around waiting for flights. The most germ-laden airports are not necessarily the biggest or busiest, although JFK and LAX do top the list. By flying out of alternate airports, you can at least lower your chances of being exposed to the flu virus.4. Use a nasal mist on flights. If you’ve ever had the experience getting the flu after a flight, you’re not alone. A study by the Journal of Environmental Health Research found that the dry cabin air on flights was what led more people to catch colds and flus while flying. Basically, when humidity levels are really low, the mucus in your nose and mouth change, making you more vulnerable to viruses. While there’s not much you can do about the cabin air, you can try to keep your airways moist by using a nasal spray. Drinking hot beverages and staying hydrated in general could also help.

5. Wash your hands often, using soap. Hand washing is a simple and effective way of keeping the flu at bay, so as a traveler, it’s a good idea to carry hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes so you can clean your hands even when you don’t have access to water. It’s especially convenient when you’re about to eat a meal on a flight and don’t have access to a lavatory because the food service cart is blocking the way.

6. Wear a surgical facemask. There’s doubt as to whether a facemask can really prevent you from catching the flu – some experts say that facemasks are good at stopping sick people from spraying the germs they cough up but may not stop you from breathing in air particles that could make you ill. However, wearing a mask can’t hurt, so if you’re really worried about catching the flu during your travels, you might want to don one when you’re in crowded or confined areas. At the very least, it’ll stop you from touching your nose and mouth, which is how the flu often enters your body.

[Disclaimer: Information in this article should not substitute for advice from a qualified medical professional. Please speak to your doctor before starting any new course of treatment. For more information about the flu see www.flu.gov]

[Photo credit: Flickr user Bob B. Brown]