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Viruses the New Condiment 363

Lip writes to tell us that a new bacteria killing virus has been deemed safe by the FDA as a food additive for ready-to-eat meats. These bacteriophages are designed to kill a common microbe (Listeria monocytogenes bacteria) to which hundreds of deaths every year have been attributed. From the article: "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."
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Viruses the New Condiment

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  • Mutation? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by MidoriKid ( 473433 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:31PM (#15941059)
    Is it possible for a bacteriophage to mutate and infect human cells?
  • Cue John Q Public (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dsanfte ( 443781 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:32PM (#15941062) Journal
    "They're putting bird flu in our food!"

    The press coverage has been woefully bad with respect to explaining that these are not your average run-of-the-mill viruses, but rather are bacteriophages that can only infect bacteria. Expect some mild hysteria over this and some nuts demanding labelling.
  • Re:Mutation? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kripkenstein ( 913150 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:38PM (#15941095) Homepage
    Is it possible for a bacteriophage to mutate and infect human cells?

    Anything is 'possible'. However, the odds of this are quite small. Bacteriophages are highly adapted to their hosts - bacteria. This would make it far less likely to occur than for a virus adapted to, say, a mammal to cross over to humans (which happens, but rarely). Furthermore, as TFA states, humans already come into contact with these particular bacteriophages all the time.

    However, there is a risk factor, obviously. We would be creating much more interaction between human beings and these bacteriophages (if these sprays become commonplace), which would give them more time to adapt to us.
  • by noidentity ( 188756 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:39PM (#15941098)
    Yay, let's trade off a few hundred known deaths with the unknown health effects of this new virus. I suppose food labeling won't be required to show that this is added, because "we're sure there are no negative health effects and wouldn't want you, the idiot consumer (literally) deciding for yourself".
  • truth in labelling (Score:5, Insightful)

    by aepervius ( 535155 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:40PM (#15941109)
    Whether histerical or not, whether dangerous or not, I am for TRUTH in labelling. It does not matter whether biotest found out that it is innocuous. It does not matter that FDA thinks genetically modified soja is ok for consumption, or hormone in beef, what matters is that *I* "the consumer" need to know to make a choice. Whether I inform myself to make a correct decision is my choice. But if you take out stuff from the label beause no consummer would buy it out of fear, then you REMOVE the choice, even if it is a dumb choice. And I as a consumer find it a really bad idea. Next you will claim putting a label with a list of ingredient with % is a dumb idea too.
  • by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:52PM (#15941155) Homepage Journal
    Expect some mild hysteria over this and some nuts demanding labelling.

    You have to be a nut to want to know what additives are in your food?

    Are vegans nuts if they want to know if enzymes from animal sources are added to their food? Are Jews or Muslims nuts because they want to know if pork products are added to their food? What about people who are allergic to peanuts, are they nuts to want to know when their foods are prepared with peanuts? How about people who are allergic to eggs? What about people who are lactose intolerant?

    It's only reasonable for manufacturers to list the contents of the food products that they place on the market.

  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:52PM (#15941157)

    The press coverage has been woefully bad with respect to explaining that these are not your average run-of-the-mill viruses, but rather are bacteriophages that can only infect bacteria. Expect some mild hysteria over this and some nuts demanding labelling.

    I was expecting more of a "We can't label this, consumers would freak out if they knew!" reaction from businesses.

    Exactly that argument was used to strike down requirements that "GM" (genetically modified) food be labelled. Businesses, with a straight face, told the government regulators that if they required labelling, consumers wouldn't buy their products. God forbid consumers be allowed to make a choice as to whether they want genetically modified foods or not...and if you're afraid they won't choose genetically modified foods- maybe you shouldn't make them.

    Most people's fears come from the business world constantly (and consistently) putting profits ahead of public health. Industries whine about reglation, but they brought it upon themselves, as almost every piece of regulation on the books were brought about by someone doing something they shouldn't have- all because it made more profit.

  • Disclosure (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:52PM (#15941161)
    I don't have an opinion on this one way or the other, but why do they need to leave consumers unaware of whether this is being used? Anything that goes into our food should be clearly labeled as being used in the process. I find it especially hypocritical since FDA claims there is no harm in this. If there is no harm, I see no reason not to specifically state what it is we are buying.

    As it stands all this will do is drive more people with means to Whole Foods and the like, (and increase their share price in the process).

    Incidentally, once FDA made it mandatory to label products with an amount of "transfat" contained in them, many common foods that used transfats have been reformulated not to do that. Trans-fats are brought into food from margarine/hydrogenated oil, and these are a known health hazard, of course. Interestingly, FDA guidelines leave a lot of wiggle room to manufacturers, allowing products with less then 0.5 gram of trans-far per serving to be labeled as trans-fat free. 0.5 gram of fat is quite a significant amount, especially since it is easy to go just under that by simply stating smaller "serving size". However, even under these half-honest guidelines of disclosure consumers have benefitted from better products. Disclosure is always good.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:54PM (#15941169)
    If they had to document every type of microbe that could potentially be in the stuff you are consuming then you would need a book with every bottle of water to list it all....
  • by twitter ( 104583 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:54PM (#15941170) Homepage Journal
    But small quantities build up over time!

    Yes, irritants cause cancer.

    Don't worry. We can trust the people who brought us BSE, growth hormones, high fructose corn syrup and the current obesity epidemic can't we? Ronald loves you.

  • by FleaPlus ( 6935 ) * on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:55PM (#15941172) Journal
    Whether histerical or not, whether dangerous or not, I am for TRUTH in labelling.

    Should all products which use yeast include the label "Contains fungus"?
  • by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @01:56PM (#15941181) Homepage Journal
    If they had to document every type of microbe that could potentially be in the stuff you are consuming then you would need a book with every bottle of water to list it all....

    How about just listing the ones that are intentionally added?

  • by CCW ( 125740 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @02:02PM (#15941211)
    I'm rather ticked off that once again (like with irradiated meat) the food industry thinks that consumers have no right to know what is in what they are eating. (and I think treating meat with radiation and bacteriophages is a good thing. I just think people have a right to know.)

    The problem is the food industry and USDA wants the benefits of science without taking any responsibility for educating a population woefully ignorant about science.

    The other side of it of course is that treating meat so it can sit on a shelf longer has no real benefit for the consumer (other than not getting sick from spoiled meat) - the meat packers benefit greatly with lower costs, but why shouldn't consumers get some of the benefit in the form of lower prices? Hiding whether it is treated is a way to capture all the benefit for the producers.
  • Re:Mutation? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @02:05PM (#15941225)

    What's more, a virus whose survival strategy is to infect bacteria doesn't really gain anything from trying to infect animal cells. When was the last time we had any infection, with or without human intervention, that made such an enourmous leap?

    Presumably sometimes after the first multi-cellular organisms developed.

    But you are going about this backwards. A virus doesn't think, it doesn't ask itself: "Can I gain anything by infecting these human cells instead of bacterial cells?" The virus infects the first cell it comes accross it can infect, human or bacterial; the question is if it's possible for the virus to mutate in such a way that it can infect the human cell, not if it's a wise thing for it to do so.

    Or, more to the point: how likely is such a mutation to occur ? It is certainly possible, since otherwise we wouldn't have any viruses, they'd all be limited to infecting bacteria.

  • by Kitten Killer ( 766858 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @02:18PM (#15941273)
    Why did the parent get modded troll?

    Irradiating foods (not making them radioactive, but exposing them to radiation) used to be an accepted practice of reducing the microbial load on fruits and vegatables, making them less likely to give you food poisoning. But then people, like the moderator, thought "Irradiation = Nuk-u-lar = glow-in-the-dark = CANCER!" and the practice stopped.

  • Re:Mutation? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PizzaFace ( 593587 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @02:23PM (#15941289)
    I'm worried that recolonizing the intestinal tract would just feed the viruses. Antibiotics get cleared from your system, but viruses keep multiplying until the hosts are destroyed.
  • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @02:43PM (#15941351)

    So am I, but truth doesn't imply completeness. The line needs to be drawn somewhere. That cow you want to eat may have ingested some kind of poison which suffused every cell of its body, and by eating it you could die. So it seems relevant, except that every slice of roast beef would have to include a 5000-page manual. At a certain point, we have to trust that the experts (that would be the FDA and other organizations) are, in fact, experts.

    Do you truly have trouble understanding the difference between a substance that was deliberate inserted into the foodstuff and substance that got there by a freak accident and couldn't possibly be included in the list of ingredients since, after all, it's presence was an unforseen accident, or are you simply making a rather pathetic attempt at astroturfing for the meat industry that doesn't want people to be able to discriminate against whatever makes the industry more profits ?

    And in the latter case, do you truly want to make your money this way, even when it leads to you, too, being unable to tell what you're actually eating ?

    So considering that the overwhelming preponderance of scientific opinion on the matter is that these things are, in fact, perfectly safe (and safer than eating bacteria), it's perfectly rational and correct for the "default" case to be "virus included."

    No, it is not. The natural and correct default is that the label includes any and all substances that went into the package. Leaving them out serves no purpose beyond making the people unable to make informed decisions. Which, of course, is exactly what the industry wants: anything that slows the bacterial growth in the meat allows them to be kept on the display longer and handled with lesser care, leading to greater profits. Your proposition is nothing more than an attempt to get around the "truth in advertising" by changing the meaning of "truth".

    A lie of omission is still a lie. Selling someone a food that has been purposefully injected with bacteria-killing viruses and neglecting to mention this, when such injections aren't common knowledge, makes you a fraudster and deserves you a long visit in the local jail. Whether or not these viruses are actually good for the customer is completely irrelevant to the matter; that you took the choice out of his hands, and in fact made it so that he never even knew that there was any choice involved, is in itself wrong.

    It is very tempting to take the choice out of people's hands "for their own good", but that's the exact same attitude that led to the Prohibition, Comics Code, content filtering in public libraries, dress codes in public schools, and Jack Thompson's crusade against games. It is wrong, it has always been wrong, and it will never stop being wrong, no matter how stupid you think the masses are being.

  • by Kitten Killer ( 766858 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @02:45PM (#15941358)
    Right, because the FDA is a giant industry+military+government complex out to drug all of you and turn you into mindless sheep so you can be controlled... Grass for dinner then?

    Do you seriously think anything you eat is "natural"?

    Selective breeding in crops and animals have been done for centries to maximise profits. That's not natural

    Irrigating land that is normally not suitable for farming. That's not natural.

    People just accept what they can understand, and reject anything that they don't comprehend.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 19, 2006 @02:50PM (#15941376)
    Won't this just ultimately produce a virus-resistant listeria strain?
  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @02:53PM (#15941386) Homepage Journal
    which there's every reason to believe, there could still be problems with a couple of systems-level effects.

    They only kill one strain of bacteria. Will consumers (and meat packers!) get a false sense of security, get sloppy, and wind up with some different strain of bacteria poisoning the meat?

    Treating huge amounts of meat with industrial quantities of phages will change the environment for the bacteria. The bacteria have a chance to change their genome every half hour. If they can evolve to be less vulnerable to phage infection then we'll be forcing them to do so. Then we wind up with spoiled meat again.

    Irradiation seems better. It will rearrange some molecules, but less than cooking the meat in an oxygen atmosphere. Radiation will kill everything except that weird bacterium that lives in nuclear reactor cooling water.
  • A mixed blessing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by golodh ( 893453 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @03:12PM (#15941446)
    From the article the idea is to cut down on illnes and deaths Listeriosis, particulerly in "primarily in pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems" caused by a bacterium called "Listeria". These bacteria grows in e.g. meat and are readily killed by cooking, so Listeria only has a chance when meat is kept uncooked.

    I consider this a very mixed blessing for the following reasons:

    - it substitutes "spray and forget" for good hygiene and quality control for food. Bluntly speaking it provides meat vendors with more leeway to get away with poor quality control, poor hygiene and meat that's too old because it takes away some of the bacteria. Economic pressure being what it is, there will be vendors who will take advantage of this and who will then have a competitive advantage over vendors that *do* pay attention to proper hygiene and quality control

    - it proposes to launch an enormously broad application of this bacterium-killing virus when only a select target group (mentioned in the article) needs it. When meat leftovers containing this virus are disposed of, they will spread this virus throughout compost heaps and perhaps even into sewage sludge, providing a great opportunity for billions of bacteria to encounter this virus in great dilution under a variety of conditions. Who is willing to bet that no bacteria will develop immunity? In this closely resembles the same irresponsible attitude that was a the bottom of the American habit to prescribe Penicillin indiscriminately for everything from coughs, colds, to sprained ankles. A habit that led directly to the emergence of the current nasty strains antibiotic-resistant bacteria (MRSA comes to mind).

    - there are no safeguards against the emergence of a new strain of Listeria that might develop and that is resistant to this particular virus.

    - bacteria live in an ecosystem with competitive pressures. If you remove one bacterium (Listeria) you create an open invitation for any bacterium that isn't targeted by this specific virus. What are the chances that we will be surprised by a newspaper article decrying the death of 100 elderly because they had (sprayed) luncheon meat in which very rare but virus-immune bacteria had developed (and had chance to develop because standards of hygiene went down and the meat was kept out of the fridge for say 24 hours)

    In summary I am pessimistic about applying this virus on a grand scale:

    - it's a sizeable intervention that isn't really needed, because with proper hygiene and fresh produce you will not have difficulties for ordinary healthy people, and those with a weakened immune system or special vulnerabilities can simply take special care.

    - due to its intended broad and indiscriminate application, there are no safeguards whatsoever against this novel anti-bacterial weapon not being blunted by allowing billions of bacteria to encounter in in great dilution, develop immunity, and pass that immunity on to their colleagues (which is a known mechanism in bacteria).

    - it only seems to benefit the producers of this virus by creating competitive pressures to use it if your competitor does so too (which is of course their good right, but not necessarily beneficial for society as a whole)

  • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @03:15PM (#15941456) Journal
    If you don't regularly get contaminated food you shouldn't have to use stuff like this at all.

    If it is pretty rare that dangerous bacteria get into your food, why should it be good practice to have viruses added to certain "foods" 100% of the time? Think about it.

    This is just like the other stupid idiocy (salmonella etc) which the food industry seems to get away with. Go read this: []

    Excerpt: "Despite increasing rates of food poisoning from Salmonella and Campylobacter during the 1980s, and continuing high levels today, the poultry industry has maintained processing practices that actually increase the percent of contaminated products. Instead of minimizing the contamination in processing plants, the poultry industry relies on consumers to cook the problem away."

    The real problem is not bacteria in food. The real problem is the food industry treating food just like any other "fuel" - if it meets regulations XYZ then it's fit to be consumed. AND the FDA etc allowing them to do so.

    With attitudes like that you get practices like feeding feathers to cows - which was stopped because, brilliantly, they feed leftover cows to chickens too, so with the BSE scare, the risk of leftover cows ending up being swept off the floor with the feathers and re-fed to cows was a bit too high to be politically/economically viable.

    And then the USA complains when the Japanese refuse their beef or their rice or whatever.

    This is just like going to a restaurant and getting crap served to you, but FDA approved crap, with FDA approved viruses squirted on it so that all the dangerous bacteria has been killed, following industry "best practices".

    Even if it is legally edible and meets all the regulations, it still leaves a bad taste in your mouth one way or another.

    Instead of debating whether the viruses are potentially harmful or not, we should consider whether what's happening in the food industry is harmful or not.

    What next? You guys are going to continue eating such industrial output, like it and think it's "wonderful new technology", "Approved by the glorious FDA"? Now that's what I call disgusting. Believe me, what is disgusting is not the viruses or the bacteria, and I'm the sort who eats and likes all sorts of stuff (some of it apparently has appeared on Fear Factor).
  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @03:25PM (#15941489)
    that cherry picked US canned tuna for it's studies to show low mercury levels, so I'm a little worried about this. The sheer number of known carcinogens in the American diet worries me. Aspertame, Sodium Nitrate, Potasium Bromate; the list goes on and on. The argument is always either a) you're not getting enough to harm you or b) it's all naturally occuring anyway. Neither idea takes into account that a) if you eat a lot of prepared foods (like most poor Americans) you get way more than most studies allow and b) is it really a good idea to add more of a naturally occuring carcinogen to a diet? Wouldn't that raise your intake above natural limits? I've been gradually trying to clean up my diet, but it's hard. Real hard. Try to buy bread without High Fructose Corn Syrup or Hydrongenated Vegetable oil for less than $4 dollars/loaf, for example. Cheap lunch meats all have Sodium Nitrate, cheap flavoring agents Potasium Bromate, cheap fish is high in Mercury. Fresh vegetables, chicken and ocean fish are _not_ cheap when eaten as much as the fda recommends. At .50 cents a serving, 6 searvings a day 30 days a month that's $180 dollars a month just on vegetables. The average American only gets $100 /month for his food budget in most families (average grocery bill for a family of 4 if $400/month). You can't really live off bread anymore either, over farming has taken a lot of the necessary nutrients out of the soil and then the wheat that made that possible. All and all, I'm appalled and frightened by my food supply, and things like this aren't encouraging.
  • Re:Mutation? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by edxwelch ( 600979 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @03:49PM (#15941574)
    Yes, but why do we need this in the first place? If meat is fresh and cleanly prepared it doesn't have any risks of bacteria. So, basically this is a measure to conteract the bacteria that you would find on meat that has being lying around for a while. While that might make the food cheaper to produce, I would prefer the fresh product, rather than gambling with the unknown effects of having a virus in my food.
  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @05:05PM (#15941774) Homepage
    The middle case is: the virus ends up in our intestines, gets hungry when it runs out of listeria

    And nature just hates it when you anthropomorphize.

    And bacteriophages don't go "hungry". They are very simple little critters. If they find the correct host, they attach to it, inject thier DNA and go promptly about making more of themselves. The host bacterium then ruptures, spilling out the viral particles and so it goes.

    If there are no more of the specific host (Listeria monocytogenes, which is NOT found in healthy humans), they remain inactive viral particles and just hang around until they are destroyed or manage to find another host.

    If you swallowed a bunch of these things, your stomach would likely digest them into component pieces parts (I suppose I could look up the acid sensitivity to these phages, but I'm not going to do so). So by the time they get to your colon where large numbers of bacteria wander about (but remember, NOT Listeria) they would be few and far between.

    As for a bacteriophage infecting a eukaryotic cell (even then meanest and newest of slashdotters has made it beyond the single cell limit), there are quite a lot of other things that you should be worrying about first: Near Earth Asteriods, Elvis returning, George Bush staying on. Those sorts of things.

  • by ozbird ( 127571 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @05:14PM (#15941805)
    Whether histerical or not, whether dangerous or not, I am for TRUTH in labelling.

    "Warning: Lark's Vomit!" []

    Personally, I think this is a dangerous precedent. Adding a 'phage is not a substitute for having proper food handling standards (and testing) to prevent Listeria contamination in the first place. Listeriosis may be unpleasant for those unfortunate enough to get it (a mere 7.4 people per million), but it acts as a red flag indicating there's a problem that needs to be fixed. Giving people a "magic spray" just encourages them to take shortcuts, leading to more outbreaks of other food contamination. (No doubt the FDA's "solution" is to add more 'phages - didn't they learn anything from the misuse of antibiotics?)

    "Ulch - that meat was tainted! You feel deathly sick." - Nethack.
  • by lord sibn ( 649162 ) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @06:59PM (#15942115)
    I am less worried about their mutation as I am about the implications of engineering an enterprise at this level to *potentially* save a couple of hundred lives every year. I think we have bigger problems more deserving of the money that will be used to manufacture the spray in question. From what I read, the greatest danger is presented to the average consumer as cold cuts. However, the article fails to specify whether the "500 deaths per year" is national, continental, or global. My assumption would be that it is global, which raises the other eyebrow for me because of the sheer number of people who already cannot afford to eat, and this process is not going to be deployed on the cheap.

    I just don't think (even if the number is 500/yr in the USA) that the expense is justified.

    Having said that, I do agree with you wholeheartedly, that they have the capacity to mutate and this could be breeding another "super bug." I just do not think it is as important as the cost/benefit (ack, I just used marketspeak) issue.
  • by elucido ( 870205 ) on Sunday August 20, 2006 @01:11AM (#15943042)
    You trust big government to protect you from drug companies and bad food? It was NEVER the federal governments responsibility to do these things. The federal government by design cannot do it. Also I never mentioned drugs, but I'm a libertarian, I don't think we need nationalized drug laws, but at least the drug issue makes sense to be nationalized. Nationalized food security makes no sense, because it's impossible to do it that way. It's food and water, it's a community / local issue.

The only possible interpretation of any research whatever in the `social sciences' is: some do, some don't. -- Ernest Rutherford