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Bacteria Eating Virus Used as Food Additive on Organic Food

bacteria eating virus food additive organic

One of my favorite bloggers, Heather Dessinger of Mommypotamus, contributed the following guest post to rile you guys up! Thanks, Heather, for the scoop.

Michael Pollan once gave readers this advice, “Avoid food products that contain ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.” Love him or hate him, Michal Pollan’s food rule #7 is spot on. And it seems simple enough, right? No disodium guanylate, pyrophosphate, sodium stearoyl lactylate, or crazy glow-in-the-dark food additives. Just real food.

Unfortunately, when it comes to bacteria-eating viruses sprayed on your lunch, labels don’t help – and “organic” is no exception. Clever labeling laws have made detecting the presence of this “food additive” – sold under the brand name Listex – virtually impossible.

Why exactly would anyone want to spray meat, cheese, fruit vegetables and other foods with viruses? It’s simple, really. Listex is a cocktail of 6 bacteria-eating viruses (bacteriophages) that have been “trained” in a lab to target and kill Listeria monocytogene, a bacteria which sickens about 1,600 people a year. Rather than work on raising healthier animals and improving handling processes, this “band aid” approach to dealing with pathogens has been creatively classified as a “clean label processing aid.” In other words, it’s been going on for years but no knows because companies aren’t required to tell you.

Clever, huh? As consumers get more savvy about reading labels, manufacturers become more coy about how they print them. They “scrub” labels of undesirable ingredients by coming up with new names for them or leaving them off altogether, often with the approval of regulatory agencies such as the FDA. Listex is a perfect example. “Consumers won’t be aware that meat and poultry products [and now cheese, fruits, vegetables and other products, including organic] have been treated with the spray,” FDA representative Andrew Zajac told the press when Listex was approved.

Now, I’m not phobic about viruses (to say the least), but I find it disturbing that such a radical approach to food safety was FDA-approved without even one human safety study. Instead it was given “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe) status because a few previous human studies on other products indicated safety, though one was as old as 1967. ¹ Hmmm . . . weren’t GMO’s approved as “GRAS”? Forgive me if I’m a little skeptical.

Trained Assassins

So basically – according to the manufacturer – the way this is supposed to work is these 6 “trained” viruses are sprayed on various foods as a safety precaution. If Listeria is present, it will mistake the viruses for food and eat them. The viruses will then begin a massive replication process that will eventually cause the bacteria to burst wide open, spilling the viruses onto the food. Yummy!

Now, normally the listeria would try to fight off the attack by producing endotoxins (substances which have been shown to provoke allergies, asthma, autoimmune problems, elevate cholesterol, cause inflammation in the digestive tract, and have been noted as a catalyst for colon cancer), but that is not the case here. Intralytix, Listex’s maker, has altered or “purified” the viruses in such a way that endotoxin levels were undetectable in the samples presented to the FDA. While that’s a good thing, we know that viruses are highly adaptable and slight changes can occur from batch to batch, so it is unclear whether this level of “purity” has continued over the years.

Another concern reported by ABC News is that “The bacteriophages might also get into battle with the friendly bacteria in the digestive system, making it harder for the body to digest food.” This a problem because not only would such a “battle” severely damage our immune systems first line of defense (the gut), it leads us right back to the concern above. How do we know that the good bacteria in our bodies won’t produce allergy/asthma/auto-immune disease/ high-cholesterol promoting endotoxins to protect themselves from Listex. We don’t.

What else don’t we know? I’d say the biggie is how another biotech darling, GMO’s, interacts with mass quantities of bacteriophages. Genetically-modified foods contain viral promoter genes that help the foreign DNA infect the host DNA, and scientists have long expressed concerns that the viral fragments in promoter genes could recombine to create more aggressive viruses. What happens when we dump tons of live viruses on GMO-laden foods is anybody’s guess, but rather than continue on down this path and find out I have a suggestion:

Let’s Wash Our Hands!

And eat sustainably raised meats, because unlike their industrially-raised counterparts they are very unlikely to contain harmful amounts of listeria, e. coli, or campylobacter bacteria.³ Let’s buy our milk and cheese from farmers who graze their cows out in open air and sunshine, and our produce from those who don’t fertilize with CAFO manure. Better yet, let’s send our little ones to do it for us.

The thing about letting my four-year old, Katie, carry a fist full of dollars through the farmers market, weigh the zucchini from the back of a rusty blue pickup, debate the merits of sausage over bacon, and inevitably hand our rancher way too much money, is this:

He SEES her. The way she smells the melons like they’re dew from heaven. The way she lights up when he says he has peaches this week. It’s not complicated. It’s about us seeing their faces, and them seeing the faces of the precious little lives that are worth more than profit margins and cutting corners.

Teaching our kids to ask for “ham and cheese with a side of virus, please” – now that’s complicated.

Listeria affects about 1,600 U.S. citizens a year, most of whom are immuno-compromised adults, pregnant women and infants. By all means let’s protect these populations with good sanitation and by educating them on how to avoid foods likely to contain listeria. But let’s not leave the “solutions” to the guys that gave us wood pulp in our cheese, secret ingredients in our orange juice, glue in our meat and ammonia-laden pink slime. Agreed?

About Mommypotamus: Heather Dessinger, aka The Mommypotamus, is a wife, blogger, and mom to two amazing kiddos, both waterborn at home. She loves all things fermenty, talks to sock puppets, and dreams of owning a backyard flock of chickens.

Her e-cookbook, Nourished Baby, is a simple guide to first foods that explains why the birth experience affects cravings for life, how to decode nursing cravings, what the latest research says about introducing peanuts, eggs and other “allergenic” foods, and more.

(top photo by danielle-scott)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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61 Responses to Bacteria Eating Virus Used as Food Additive on Organic Food
  1. Lauren
    July 20, 2012 | 10:56 am

    This makes me sick to my stomach–but thank you for bringing this issue to my attention! I always try to buy local, pastured meats and raw dairy but I usually get my organic produce at the supermarket. How am I supposed to avoid Listex if organic fruits and veggies may be sprayed with it? I don’t often have access to a farmer’s market.

    • Susan E
      July 26, 2012 | 4:57 pm

      Be certain you have no access to local growers? I really thought the same thing, we live in the desert – try this site: and also try the Weston A Price site – look for a local chapter leader and contact them for resourses in your area. Finding my sources was the hardest part, but I’ve found new ones are always popping up – we found one source for local eggs, now there are 5 we know of, good luck!

  2. Douglas Wallace
    July 20, 2012 | 11:53 am

    makes me wanna “holla” the way they try to play us :(

  3. Pam Brisse via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:13 pm

    is that really organic???

  4. Kim Plaga via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:14 pm

    Definitely warning flags. More reason to buy local from farmers you know and to make from scratch.

  5. Fumetsu Fushichou via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:16 pm

    What in the nine hells…?!? No thanks! Famers markets and growing my own. Yikes, and ew!!

  6. Madeleine Decker via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:17 pm

    to be safe, don`t breath, don`t eat, don`t drink, don`t make love anymore…. all is a deadly weapon. pfffffffff

  7. Food Renegade via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:21 pm

    I especially find the thought that these engineered viruses might fight the “good” bacteria in our guts disturbing.

    • Dani
      July 26, 2012 | 4:46 pm

      That actually was my first thought as I was reading this–several paragraphs before it was mentioned here.

  8. There are certain strains of bacillus that are used as an organic food pesticide. This article is odd, and gross! :P

  9. Food Renegade via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:26 pm

    My4kiddos “Cooking & Homeschooling” — Exactly. I’m not necessarily opposed to using certain strains of bacteria or viruses for our benefit. I just want to know that they’re actually beneficial! In this case, the FDA approved this additive without a single human safety trial. So, we really know *nothing* about this particular additive safety-wise.

  10. Beth 'Crowder' Schmeisl via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:27 pm

    Scary! That is certainly motivation to buy as little at the store as possible!

  11. Talina Norris-Ryder via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:27 pm

    If I didn’t grow it I don’t assume it’s safe. Period.

  12. Cygnia Foruzani Rapp via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:35 pm

    FYI: its the USDA that regulates organic certification and NOT the FDA. If we don’t want this sprayed on organic produce, etc, then it should be taken up with the USDA. As an organic food manufacturer, please resist making blanket statements and judgment calls about “those evil companies” – my company is small, privately-held startup – I have never even heard of this stuff and I certainly would NEVER approve of its use.

  13. Aimea Saul Reynolds via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:37 pm

    This sounds very detrimental to gut flora and balance. Lots of inflammation in the gut and you can kiss good mental and physical health goodbye.

  14. Rebecca Friedman via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:51 pm

    This is disgusting. What’s next? Thanks for unearthing this, Food Renegade.

  15. Aimea Saul Reynolds via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 12:54 pm

    This certainly explains why my organic fruits and veggies last much longer when bought from Whole Foods as opposed to the Farmer’s Market.

  16. Jill-David Boman via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 1:01 pm

    So, is there any way to know whether food has been treated with this? Very curious!

  17. Joy Ashley Blaser via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 1:03 pm

    Yet another reason to eat locally, buy from farmer’s you trust, and grow your own!

  18. Shannon Jacovino via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 1:09 pm

    It never ends does it?

  19. Stephenny D Stiles via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 1:13 pm

    Seriously makes me sick. I feel like if it takes this kind of effort for food to be “healthy” then we probably shouldn’t be eating it.

  20. Lori Lemanski Cetlinski via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 1:22 pm

    Oh well, the food renegade page will not open for me…

  21. Mary Light via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 1:29 pm

    used on “what” organic food I wonder? Now we not only need gmo’s labelled but to know where our “organic” food comes from?

  22. Vivian Linden via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 1:37 pm

    ugh, another nail in the coffin of supermarket shopping

  23. Judith Cariou Page via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 1:41 pm

    its never ending… we wont know what to eat eventually unless we do everything ourselves :(

  24. Quedo Keeran via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 2:01 pm

    END OF DA HUMANS!!!!!!

  25. Jerome Newood via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 3:12 pm

    Is the very end coming ?

  26. Catherine Kincaid via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 3:18 pm

    It seems that all our government agencys are evil. This is nasty.

  27. Annie Atkin Rasmussen via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 3:37 pm

    ARGGGGG. This makes NO SENSE.

  28. Olga Harris via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 3:46 pm

    it’s gonna eat all the good bacteria in our digestive system and elsewhere in our bodies O_o

  29. Hillary Allison Holmes Ewing via Facebook
    July 20, 2012 | 4:01 pm

    They do their best to ruin everything.

  30. Sublime Garden Design via Facebook
    July 21, 2012 | 9:43 am

    Makes my stomach turn…

  31. Jenell
    July 21, 2012 | 10:09 am

    Who hates Michael Pollan?!

    • Heather@Mommypotamus
      July 22, 2012 | 2:36 pm

      Some people think he’s sold out to industrial interests and no longer speaks for “real food.” I personally don’t follow him enough to have an opinion, but I loved The Omnivore’s Dilemma!

  32. Di
    July 22, 2012 | 6:02 pm

    Oh no! Australia and New Zealand are in the final stages of the approval process of this product. FSANZ is slipping this through very quietly. I actively read lots of Australian blogs etc and have never heard this product/process mentioned. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention. I will be actively watching the approval process and spreading the word. Now to research my meat suppliers.

  33. veronica
    July 22, 2012 | 10:55 pm

    This sucks! We don’t have a good farmers market in my city. There is really not much available, unless we go out of town to find it, or get it online and it cost an arm and a leg. not much of an option over here.

  34. Stevan J Guenther via Facebook
    July 23, 2012 | 8:36 am

    BEV…hmmm that’s an organism…right?

  35. Walter Jeffries
    July 24, 2012 | 5:13 pm

    Bacteriophages are one of those things I have mixed thoughts on. They can be very good but I’m not quite satisfied with the research, yet. They are not an excuse for poor sanitation. They should be labeled on the package when used on the food.

    Speaking of bacteria – that fist full of dollars has been handled by icky-bacteria covered humans and carries lots of potential for transmitting disease. Best not think about it too much or you’ll go crazy like the Antiseptic Baby.

  36. Janet
    July 26, 2012 | 11:49 am

    I’m serious when I proclaim that Food Renegad is my favorite only number 1 website.
    Thanks so very much for all you do.

  37. ilene
    July 26, 2012 | 1:54 pm

    Is this sprayed on whole foods like fruit? or just processed foods that are cut, ground or otherwise messed with?

    • rhyfeddu
      July 28, 2012 | 4:34 pm

      This is my question too!

      Of course it might change in weeks and take us months to cotton onto to it… SO FRUSTRATING.

  38. Care8999
    July 26, 2012 | 2:41 pm

    Sooo………If I do depend on buying organic food from a supermarket……What steps do I additionally now have to add on to ensure safety for my all so precious health??? There is NO safe organic fruit or vegetables?? How am I to know??? Please someone tell me!!!!!

  39. Paul
    July 26, 2012 | 3:38 pm

    There was a time in the US, the early part of the 20th century, when these organizations were first empowered that they were necessary. The melamine in the milk scandal in China recently shows that other countries could benefit from such oversight as well.

    But they have become part of the problem, as any bureaucracy is wont to do: They exist to self-perpetuate and serve those that they regulate not the end users. This is so disturbing on so many levels, now they’ve reached into my gut, thanks for the heads up.

    As a healthy non-immune compromised adult I wonder that the damn listeria is less of a threat.

  40. Connie Mojica
    July 26, 2012 | 10:20 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to post all the great information on food. It really is helpful. Thanks again.

  41. Amy
    July 26, 2012 | 10:31 pm

    Great article but I have to say my jaw is hanging open not from the info but because that’s a picture of the farmer’s market I know and love. And I think I recognize that tablecloth on the market table. Really? I had no idea Heather was from around here! Why have we not met??? Until we moved a few miles away, I lived and breathed at that farmer’s market!

    • KristenM
      July 26, 2012 | 10:34 pm

      Heather had been living in Dallas until just a few months ago, when she and her little family moved to TN.

  42. Nita Harvey via Facebook
    July 29, 2012 | 10:07 am

    Is anyone willing to pass on info to me on local farmers in the North Fulton area of Atlanta, Ga.?

    • Jesse
      August 1, 2012 | 11:15 pm

      Here is two places that you can check to see what is near you :-)

    • Alecia grimm
      July 14, 2013 | 9:01 pm

      There is a farmers market in Alpharetta on saturdays. If that isn’t close to you, message me and I can give you lots more.

  43. Leslie
    July 30, 2012 | 12:17 pm

    I love local farmers markets but some of the produce is also gmo. It’s not just the large manufacturers that use it and they also spray pesticides. I used to have many trucks that went to various farmers markets selling produce like many people. Many of the sellers aren’t the growers! It’s always best to grow your own when possible. I have a 60 x 75 foot backyard and have an apple and peach tree. I grow 2 kinds of grapes, rhubarb, every herb I use and a ton of fruits and veggies. So much that I give to the neighbors if I can’t use it or freeze it. I had to give up some of the grass and flowers but now I only grow what I can eat unless it’s perenial. How often do we all really use our grass anyway???

  44. Megan
    July 30, 2012 | 1:49 pm

    Thanks for the article; this is creepy! Is there no way to track what manufacturers use Listex?

  45. Half-Crazed Runner
    July 30, 2012 | 8:13 pm

    It’s sad what is passing for “organic” these days. I just read how even the terms ‘No pens, Farm-Raised, Open Grazing and Grass Fed’ are legal marketing terms – as long as it occurs “sometime” during the animal’s existence. Aaaah greed, what will you think up next?

  46. Organican
    August 5, 2012 | 6:20 pm

    This article almost provokes more questions than it provides answers, though I am grateful for the conversation starter. But a follow up is necessary. Readers would like to know: 1. How widespread is it’s use, and for what kinds of products (e.g. processed, packaged, frozen, or even fresh?) 2. WHICH ORGANIC COMPANIES USE IT and how do we find out if this isn’t known? We have to share this kind of info as most of us reading it naturally don’t want to take on unwelcome viruses to do our the job our bodies do best. 3. How do we approach this challenge to our safety collectively? Who do we talk to, lobby, write to, harrass, or otherwise make aware of our wish for change?
    Thank you!

    • Natasha
      June 9, 2013 | 8:18 am

      I agree! I am stationed in Japan and while I buy a lot of Japanese produce, my dairy and meat (organic) are bought on base. I live in Tokyo and I have not learned enough of the language to converse about the standards of raising animals for dairy and meat to feel comfortable buying it. Or if I buy organic from off base which I have done in the past, it is close to $10/lb which I cannot afford to keep up with. I buy my milk occasionally off base as it is $3/liter and again, I can’t afford that. I recently started looking into making my own cheese but that is a ways off. More information on this would be greatly appreciated because I really like meat and don’t want to have to give it up if I don’t have to. Organic is the best I can do in my situation.

  47. Katherine Kellett Foglesong via Facebook
    June 16, 2014 | 7:14 pm

    Locals. Rarely a store. Great reminder here to buy from a farm you trust, nearby.

  48. Nikki Moore via Facebook
    June 16, 2014 | 8:14 pm

    What?? That’s messed up!

  49. Sue Weible via Facebook
    June 16, 2014 | 11:38 pm

    Farm direct meat, milk, eggs and some seasonal produce. Honestly I buy food from store only rarely. I guess one can thank God for having allergies that make me allergic to most store bought garbage.

  50. Becky Koch via Facebook
    June 17, 2014 | 12:12 am

    We buy our meat from local farmers. Never from a store.

  51. Rita Williams Ashcroft via Facebook
    June 17, 2014 | 9:23 am

    My FIL raises his cows, and we split the cuts. As close to farm as I can get!

  52. Heather Chilton Wormsley via Facebook
    June 17, 2014 | 1:22 pm

    Think of the gut-flora imbalances and inflammation this can cause!

  53. Michelle Livengood via Facebook
    June 17, 2014 | 8:30 pm

    If these are phages they are talking about then I am all for it. In some parts of Russia they use these viruses to fight infections. There is a great documentary on youtube about it. Look it up. I agree that it isn’t the answer to the drug resistance we are seeing in animals and us. Better farming techniques are the answer. We used phages before antibiotics in the U.S. but the phages can’t be patented and profited on so the government made them illegal. You have to jump through hoops if you want to use them for an infection. We all have these phages on us right now. All bacteria comes with phages because phages eat bacteria.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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