Insights by Goldie: What’s not on your food label?

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in October 2006

Many of the regulatory decisions that emanate from federal agencies in charge of food safety alarm and infuriate anyone paying even half attention. Here’s a new one.

In August, an article in a business magazine touted the success of a venture capital company that found a special niche in food safety. The company won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market a new product concept in pathogen reduction. The product is a combination of six bacteria-killing viruses and it’s designed for spraying on ready-to-eat meats to kill the bacterium Listeria.

The Centers for Disease Control say Listeria sickens 2,500 people a year and is fatal in about 500 cases. Listeria is of special concern in deli meats, which are high risk since they’re typically eaten cold. Refrigeration does not guarantee safety from Listeria.

The developer of this viral cocktail has more under development, including one to target virulent E. Coli bacteria. E. Coli is common in the feces of cows and steers and easily gets into ground meats, especially at huge facilities that process tons of raw meat at a time. As with food irradiation, the virus sprays would be intended to kill — not actually remove — the feces from the meat. Appetizing.

Aside from the “yuk” factor, does this direction in pathogen management make sense to you? Would you buy meats that included virus sprays as ingredients, if you knew that from reading the list of ingredients?

The virus spray is classified as a bacteriophage (bacteria eater). Although phages have been used as pesticides against plant pests in field crops, they’ve never been approved as an ingredient in our food. Until now.

Although labeling of meats is under the USDA’s discretion, FDA is suggesting to USDA that it simply state “Bacteriophage Preparation” to describe the virus concoction on the label of the ready-to-eat meats. That’s typical of FDA’s thinking. A few people would understand what bacteriophages are, but most would not read that and think “Oh, this means it has viruses in it.”

A few years ago, FDA fought adamantly against using straightforward labels on irradiated foods. It wanted to label them as treated with “Cold Pasteurization.” FDA finally backed off on that, fortunately.

The viruses in this spray, according to FDA’s own description, were “grown in a preparation of the very bacteria they are supposed to kill, and then purified. [FDA] had concerns that the virus preparation could contain toxic residues … however, testing did not reveal such residues … which in small quantities likely wouldn’t cause health problems anyway.” That’s cold comfort to concerned consumers.

FDA is not alone in deciding we don’t need to know what’s in our food. The USDA recently reduced mad cow testing from 1,000 to a mere 110 animals a day (see Newsbites, page 10). We agree with Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the venerable Consumers Union, that the cut in testing is outrageous. What we don’t know can and tragically may hurt us.

Those who contacted me are adamantly opposed and outraged to learn it’s unlikely the viral cocktail will be listed among the ingredients. Numerous web blogs and comments from readers agree.

Several of you have asked whether certified organic deli meats will be sprayed with these viruses. Here’s the situation: All ingredients in organic foods are subject to full oversight by the National Organic Program. To be considered, the marketer needs to petition the USDA National Organic Program for approval, providing extensive research information.

The National Organic Standards Board (on which I served from 2001 to 2006) would order an independent, scientific review of the science behind the product. The petition and report by the reviewers would be available for public review and comment before any decision by the NOSB.

USDA is likely to take the same approach with the virus-spray as FDA has with foods containing genetically engineered ingredients: You and I do not need to know what’s in our food. They’ll decide what’s best for us. The right to an informed choice is ignored.

Also in this issue

Your co-op, October 2006

Fall member meeting, Application deadline nears

News bites, October 2006

PCC a Best Place to Work, Global organic growth, Sustainability grants, and more