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.
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)