August 19

An opportunity for the law of unintended consequences to rear its head

14  comments

In reading the New York Times today I came across an article buried deep with in the bowels of the paper that I found more than a little troubling. The article entitled Agency Approves First Use of Viruses as a Food Additive is about the first-ever ruling yesterday from the Food and Drug Administration that says

a mix of bacteria-killing viruses can be safely sprayed on cold cuts, hot dogs and sausages to combat common microbes that kill hundreds of people a year…

Say what?!?

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.

These viruses are designed to kill virulent strains of Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria that can cause serious infections in pregnant women, newborns and in people with compromised immune systems. According to the CDC, Listeria monocytogenes causes an estimated 2500 people in the United States to become seriously ill each year.
According to the article this viral preparation attacks only the strains of the bacteria that are harmful to humans and nothing else. If Andrew Zajac, a spokesman for the FDA is to be believed, then

”As long as it used in accordance with the regulations, we have concluded it’s safe.”

For some reason I am just not reassured.
The foods mainly affected will be luncheon meats, which will be sprayed with the viral mixture before being packaged, because these items are purchased and typically eaten without being cooked or reheated.
How are these virus mixtures obtained?

The viruses are grown in a preparation of the very bacteria they kill, and then purified. The FDA had concerns that the virus preparation potentially could contain toxic residues associated with the bacteria. However, testing did not reveal the presence of such residues, which in small quantities likely wouldn’t cause health problems anyway, the FDA said.

And most frightening of all

Consumers won’t be aware that meat and poultry products have been treated with the spray, Zajac added. The Department of Agriculture will regulate the actual use of the product.

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?
Our government at work. And we all fork over good money for this.


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  1. So am I to understand that all meat companies will use this or only certain ones? Sounds like unless a brand can say “our meat doesn’t contain viruses!” the only safe way will be to buy organic.
    Hi Michael–
    I don’t even know if organic will be safe. As I understand it, the viral mixture will only be sprayed on packaged meats such as luncheon meats, sliced turkey and ham, and other foods of that ilk that most people don’t reheat. Regular meat, as in steaks and porkchops, I think will be safe.
    MRE

  2. I saw this also and have to say that the whole idea scares me. Don’t viruses mutate? Is the spraying of this virus going to be mandatory? And does anyone know when the spraying will start? Will it apply to lunch meat sliced to order or only the prepackaged kind? Is there a possibility that even if one doesn’t eat items containing this virus that it could potentially spread through other means?
    Hi Kristn–
    If you read the article in the Times that I linked to, you will know as much about it as I do.
    As I understand it, the spraying will be limited to pre-cooked, packaged luncheon type meats. I would think that it would not be applied to meat that is actually sliced in a deli and wrapped there.
    Viruses do mutate, but given that they’re grown in the bacteria they’re meant to kill, it’s unlikely that they would undergo a deadly mutation. I’m more worried about the contamination with the Listeria.
    MRE

  3. Is this process similar to the biological process that was used to manufacture tryptophan? I never got clear on exactly why people died, only one manufacturer was implicated. But it struck me as historically significant. The first deaths as a result of commercial biological fermentation.
    Hi David–
    The tryptophan problems arose from contamination of the tryptophan, which in pure form doesn’t cause any problems. It was the contaminating agent that caused the EMS, not the tryptophan.
    I’m worried about the same thing here–contamination.
    MRE

  4. I just love it that the Center for Science in the Public Interest is backing this saying that the FDA would never go through with something that would harm the public! Does anyone remember fen-phen?
    Hi Diana–
    One of the ways I judge whether I’m for or against something I know little about is to look at what groups such as the CSPI or Physicians for Responsible Medicine have to say about it–then go the other way.
    The only reason I can imagine that CSPI would have anything positive to say about this situation is that they think it will somehow keep people from eating meat.
    Best–
    MRE

  5. Every gets upset over viruses but if we called them http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacteriophage Bacteriophages and realized we already eat them, already have them living inside us, swim in them and have lived happily with them for probably millions of years… wouldn’t make quite the sensationalistic headlines.
    Hi Nancy–
    Bacteriophage is just another name for a virus that attacks a bacteria. It’s true that we live with them, swim with them, etc., but those viruses are in equilibrium with their surroundings and not likely to cause problems. I’m not sure that I want viruses grown in a slurry of the very bacteria that makes people violently ill sprayed on my meat. All it takes is a little slip up in the purification process and what gets sprayed on the meat is the virus mixture along with a whole lot of virulent bacteria.
    I hope it never happens.
    MRE

  6. Trouble, oh we got trouble, right here in River City, that starts with T and that rhymes with V and that stands for Virus — on my ham and baby swiss lunch wraps no less. I guess I’ll have to circumvent those FDA sumbitches by shooting, gutting, and slicing up the feral hogs that are frequenting my neck of the woods. If I take down a few big ones I’ll be sure to share my homemade lunch meat with all the pregnant women, newborn babies, and immunosuppressed folks of River City.
    James–
    I know that those neonates in River City are looking forward to their feral-hog lunchmeat. What a guy you are for providing.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  7. I read about this on Jimmy Moore’s blog earlier. It is kinda scary. I seriously need to see if I can find the money to buy more organic stuff from Whole Foods or something. Yikes.

  8. Hello,
    This is the biotech industry’s most recent “contribution”. The FCA just rubber stamped it, as that is their “job”. At least we are aware of it. Maybe if we just insisted on mostly locally grown food, (those of us that can still do that) it might send a message to biotech companies and corporate agribusiness. I’ve seen a few meat packing plants and chicken “factories” and I won’t consume anything that comes from them. I’m a big fan of science and technology, but this stuff hasn’t been explained to us well enough yet.
    Griff
    Hi Griff–
    We’re aware of it only in the sense that we read it was going to happen. What we won’t know because there will be no requirement that any of the food processors have to label their products as having been sprayed with the viral mixture. That’s what worries me.
    Best–
    MRE

  9. Dr. Eades,
    I really enjoy your site. Lots of great details and information. I actually did a more Protein Power based diet originally in 1998. Since restarting 6 months ago I’m on the Stefansson/Bear path this time.
    Well, just another reason to avoid processed meats to be honest with you. While it may be popular on some low-carb diets, one should really avoid processed lunch meats if one can help it. Not only is the quality of the meat used in question but the meat itself is usually LOADED with sodium. Extra sodium should be avoided at all costs, it’s a chemical poison.
    If you’re looking for a quick snack to have around buy a food dehydrator and make your own jerky.
    Hi Rob–
    I’m well acquainted with Stefansson, but who is bear?
    Sodium may be a chemical poison to some, but not really according to the medical literature. There are a tiny group of people who have salt-sensitive high blood pressure, but not many. Other than those few, a little sodium here and there isn’t a problem in my opinion. I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say it is a poison.
    At any give time we’ve got about two teaspoons of sodium circulating in our blood–if that level drops in our blood, we can get into electrolyte balance problems. If we over consume occasionally, the kidneys deal with it easily. That’s their job. We can’t really make sodium if we don’t get enough, but, unlike iron, we can get rid of it if we get too much.
    Best–
    MRE

  10. This goes beyond scary. 2500 people get sick by eating poorly handled Oscar Myer bologna and this is the solution? Luckily I get my luncheon meats cut fresh at the deli, but I gotta admit Canada is starting to look mighty appealing.
    Hi David–
    From now on I’ll get all mine at the deli. I don’t know if Canada is any better.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  11. Dr. Eades,
    The Bear is Owsley Stanley. He read Stefansson’s book in 1958 and has been on an all meat diet for 47 years. I’m not sure if this is the right place for links, but if you look at my blog, then look for the Zero Carb Path page (based on emails from Bear). I have links to Bear’s essay on diet and exercise in my links.
    -Rob
    Thanks Rob. I’ll take a look.
    MRE

  12. Oh dear lord, what will they think of next? This is scary stuff, indeed. Thank goodness I’m not a fan of lunch meats.
    “The only reason I can imagine that CSPI would have anything positive to say about this situation is that they think it will somehow keep people from eating meat.”
    I think that you’ve hit the nail on the head with that one. And to think at one time I was a follower of CSPI. Thank goodness for that brain transplant that I eventually got…
    Hi Esther–
    We’ve all had our own brain transplants somewhere along the way.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  13. The general public is so complacent about how food is processed that I am beginning to think people will happily comply if the FDA decides to start infusing beef with cow dung to ward off mad cow disease! Man, I hope I didn’t just give “them” any ideas…
    Hi A.R.–
    I agree. But, it is hoped, not the readers of this blog.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  14. This is a fantastic blog. Nevertheless, I have to take issue with your characterization that spraying viruses on luncheon meat is an example of “our government at work.” There are presently 65 lobbyists per legislator in Washington. There is a revolving door between the FDA and the pharmaceuticals. Were our government a human being, it would be a very sick one, suffering from a variety of infections, co-infections, various cancers, and a few psychological disorders. Most of this is a result of a horrible diet, consisting of massive amounts of corporate carbs, and very little of the people’s protein. It doesn’t have to be this way. Plenty of countries have decent, responsive governments. We could, too (in fact, we have in the past). I highly doubt the Swedes will be spraying viruses on their meat any time soon.
    Doug
    Hi Doug–
    I agree with most of what you write. I wouldn’t use Sweden, however, as an example of a country that operates perfectly. It may operate perfectly for Swedes, but we’re not Swedes, I don’t really think it would work here. Not enough homogeneity amongst the populace.
    Best–
    MRE

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