Friday, August 18, 2006

Viruses as food additives

I find it sad that the world has come to this. The FDA announced that it has approved the use of viruses as a food additive. The particular viruses (known as phage in this case) target and kill common bacterial pathogens found in meat. It is entirely possible that this treatment will lead to reduction in deaths and illnesses. However, it is also possible that there will be unexpected consequences of this treatment and thus anything like this should be done with caution. What saddens me about this whole thing is that it is the wrong way to go about solving the problem. Most of the problem comes from the fact that our meat today in this country does not come to us in reasonable condition. The animals are usually kept in unsanitary conditions where diseases and nasty pathogens are prevalent.

The best way to think about this in my opinion is what I read in The Omnivore's Dilemma, the new book by Michael Pollan. In this book he talks about how animals now frequently live in what can be considered the equivalent of the slums of the industrial revolution. Cities of animals, frequently wallowing in excrement, is not the best way to prevent bad microbes from getting in our food.

So in recent years all sorts of practices have been developed to kill these microbes in food products. Irradiation, for example. And now, viruses, sprinkled on your meat, to keep the bacteria from growing too much. Give me meat from animals that have not been swimming in their own shit and piss and I will be happy to take my risks without dumping viruses on top.


  1. Hi Jonathan -- as it so happens, today I drove from San Diego along the I-5 to Sacramento.
    I think I saw and smelled (!!) several of the places you refer to ...
    There are not "Old Mac Donald's" style farms ... Looks a bit like a dilemma to me: the old-style farming seems to have problem with "scaling". And what scales ... well, stinks ...

  2. Well, what you saw along highway 5 are giant feedlots where they gather animals to get them big and fat for slaughter. These feedlots are the equivalent of the slums of the industrial revolution and are breeding grounds for every nasty virulent pathogen you can think of. This is NOT a problem of scaling for the old style farms. This is a different kind of farming - taking animals out of the farm and moving them to cesspools of their own filth. I think it is possible for old style farms to scale up operations without contributing to the spread of disease and pollution. It is simply that the people running these feedlots are not trying.


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