Fun with Bacteriophages

If you haven’t heard, the FDA has agreed with a petition by Intralytix, Inc. to spray luncheon meats with a combination of six viruses in order to “eat” the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium which causes about 2,500 illnesses each year and several hundred deaths.

From the AP Story on CNN:

The combination of six viruses is designed to be sprayed on ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, including sliced ham and turkey, said John Vazzana, president and chief executive officer of manufacturer Intralytix Inc.

The special viruses, called bacteriophages, are meant to kill strains of the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium, the Food and Drug Administration said in declaring it safe to use on ready-to-eat meats prior to their packaging.

The viruses are the first to win FDA approval for use as a food additive, said Andrew Zajac, of the regulatory agency’s office of food additive safety.

The bacterium the viruses target can cause a serious infection called listeriosis, primarily in pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. In the United States, an estimated 2,500 people become seriously ill with listeriosis each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 500 die.

Luncheon meats are particularly vulnerable to Listeria since once purchased they typically aren’t cooked or reheated, which can kill harmful bacteria like Listeria, Zajac said.

Michael R. Eades, MD nicely sums up the problems with this concept:

So, let me make sure I’ve got this straight. Because about 2500 hundred people (out of about 300 million) get sick each year–and not just 2500 random people, but specifically pregnant women, neonates and immunosuppressed people–we all have to live with our luncheon meat sprayed with a viral mixture? A mixture of viruses grown in the very bacteria that they are designed to kill, and with the potential, unless purified very carefully, to contain some of this bacteria. And, the powers that be are going to spray this stuff on and have no package labeling to tell us whether the product we’re buying has been sprayed or not.

Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to just warn pregnant women and immunosuppressed people to avoid packaged meats? Who am I forgetting? Oh, yeah, neonates. Now there is a real group to worry about. How many neonates do you suppose consume luncheon meats?

Can we really just let these types of things go on? I mean, seriously, how much revenue would the luncheon meat industry lose if they warned pregnant women and people with immunosuppresion issues to not eat such meats, or at least fry them the hell up first? (Bologna is always better fried!) This is about money people, this is not about saving 500 lives/year, this is not about watching out for pregnant women at risk, this is about someone, somewhere making money.

Tell your favorite deli that you are going to stop buying that turkey sandwich or a ham on rye unless you know that they aren’t using phaged food. The Europeans stood up to giant Agriculture businesses and said no to genetically altered food – all we have to do is stand up with our money and say “no virus on my hot dog, thank you!”

As Kristi Andersonnotes:

if we have to create a virus to kill off bacteria in our lunch meat, maybe we shouldn’t be eating lunch meat.

Yes, avoiding this will take effort on an individual basis. Yes, our lives may be inconvenienced by being forced out of habitual patterns of consumption, but a little effort and awareness and spreading the word and we can have our luncheon meats without viruses.

Or we can simply let them do just one more small thing that makes money for the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Because we all know that income is directly related to longevity and health, so what difference does it make?

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