BUDAPEST, Hungary — Greed was the motive. Housewives were the unwitting perpetrators. So far, nearly four dozen diners have become victims, stricken ill by paprika laced with lead-based paint.
The consequences of Europe's latest food-tampering scandal are likely to afflict not just the body but the soul of Hungary, as a nation proud of its culinary culture finds its food under suspicion, and cooks from Sopron to Szeged ponder how they will manage without their signature Hungarian spice.
Since 46 people were poisoned by tainted paprika last month, police have rounded up 60 suspects. Sacks and tins of paprika have been swept from every store shelf, and the government has banned all domestic sales of the spice.
Yet panic has mounted.
"A Hungarian woman simply can't cook without paprika," insisted Anna Horvath, a pensioner who traveled 40 miles by train from an outlying village to get her cache of the capsicum-based, pungent red powder tested for traces of the poisonous paint.
Paprika is the defining ingredient of Hungarian cuisine. It provides the distinctive flavor of the most popular dishes, from its namesake chicken paprika to every pot of goulash to the tangy tomato-pepper compote called lesco .
Paprika gives Hungarian sausage its rusty color, and a sprinkling of the stuff adds flair to dishes finished off with a dollop of sour cream.
It shares the pride of placement beside salt on most tables, edging out black pepper as the popular choice for a final flavor spike.
Paprika seeped into Hungarian cooking only about 200 years ago, but each of this country's 10.5 million citizens now consumes, on average, more than a pound of it each year.
Now a tiny part of the national total has been laced with a red paint compound, apparently to improve a sad-looking lot, and the country is up in arms. Worse than the culinary chaos disrupting millions of Hungarian households, for example, is the disastrous taint the incident has inflicted on Hungary's reputation as a safe place for travelers and a fun place to eat.
Restaurants across Budapest report that some diners, especially foreign tourists, are specifically requesting that paprika be left out of the dishes they order. The Matthias Cellar, one of the capital's most popular eateries, has temporarily taken goulash off the menu.
"Paprika symbolizes Hungary," explained a devastated Kalman Kalla, the master chef at Hungary's famed Gundel's restaurant. "It will take a long time to get over this."
Like a canary in a mine shaft, guarding against a lethal whiff, Kalla personally tastes a sample from each new sack of paprika, he said.
"We have presidents and prime ministers and the world's great artists coming to dine here. I have to know what I'm feeding them is safe, otherwise I couldn't sleep at night," said the master chef.
Hungary produces about 8,000 tons of paprika each year, about 6% of the world market, which is evenly divided between domestic consumption and foreign export.
Government investigators are not sure how much paprika was tainted with the toxic paint compound, but they have seized nearly two tons of the doctored substance in the Kalocsa "Paprika Belt" along the Danube River, about 60 miles south of Budapest. The rest of the tainted paprika had been distributed to private traders who sold it to market vendors.
"The police say they doubt those who did this knew how harmful the substance can be," Emi Koncse of the Ministry for Trade and Industry said of the paint compound.
Investigators believe that the perpetrators tried to save time and money by artificially drying ripe peppers instead of allowing them to naturally desiccate, which can take up to a year. Peppers dried too quickly produce a less brilliant red color when ground into spice, food experts say, which likely prompted the tamperers to add the paint agent to improve the looks of their product.
The first cases of paprika-induced lead poisoning occurred in late August, but the source was not traced to the tainted spice until nearly a month later, by which time 46 people were hospitalized. Prime Minister Gyula Horn appointed his chief deputy, Gabor Kuncze, to oversee the investigation.
The government was confident that the two main paprika mills in Kalocsa and Szeged practiced quality controls adequate to ensure none of their product had been tainted. Hungary's paprika supply used to be produced exclusively by the two state-owned plants, but at least 70 small private mills have cropped up over the last five years under Hungary's post-Communist drive for entrepreneurship. The 59 people arrested so far are all associated with a handful of those fledgling private mills.
Free testing of domestic stocks of paprika has been offered to consumers, but as the number of samples showing traces of toxic lead residue increased, panic ensued. By early October, Budapest's Quality Protection Institute was being inundated with 5,000 requests a day for sample testing.