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For Safer Food, Just Add Viruses
October 1, 2013 4:44 AM   Subscribe

In March 2012, inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture uncovered a problem in Elgin, Texas. Beef sausage from a small family-run meat processor appeared to have been contaminated with a nasty bacterium called Listeria monocytogenes. The bug can make people sick and, in rare cases, be deadly. The processor had to recall more than a ton of sausage. It’s the kind of story that strikes terror in the hearts of other sausage peddlers, including Mike Satzow, so he uses phages to keep his small company's sausages safe to eat.
posted by Blasdelb (58 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is pretty classic What Could Possibly Go Wrong material here.
posted by empath at 4:55 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a fledgling sausage maker, things like listeria terrify me. The way I see it, the first customer that gets sick is pretty much the end of my business, especially in the early going. I guess this is one way to deal with the problem. I'd really, really be interested in other approaches though.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:56 AM on October 1, 2013


This is pretty classic What Could Possibly Go Wrong material here.

As long as Intralytix (God, that name) isn't giving the phage-infected stock bacterial culture partially randomized primers to the business ends of the phage capsid, I'm not seeing how anything could go wrong here. The bacterial cell wall and membrane are too different from the eukaryotic cell's extra cellular matrix and membrane for the phage to really get anything done.

And this is to say nothing of mammalian cells with sets of intra-cellular defenses on top of the rather potent immune system/extra-cellular defenses we all have.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:12 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"As a fledgling sausage maker, things like listeria terrify me. The way I see it, the first customer that gets sick is pretty much the end of my business, especially in the early going. I guess this is one way to deal with the problem. I'd really, really be interested in other approaches though."

Listeria monocytogenes is a problem to which there really are no good solutions in an industrial or home setting, it is in so many ways to perfect bug to fuck up and spread terror through our food system. It is facultatively anaerobic so neither starving it of oxygen or exposing it to oxygen does a anything, it grows just fine in a refrigerator so keeping food cold doesn't do a damn thing to prevent its growth, and it uses a quorum sensing mechanism in its hosts to prevent virulence until it grows to a point where the immune system can't do a damn thing about it - not that the immune system could do much anyway with it being intracellular -allowing it to be infectious in absurdly low doses. It also causes a whole plethora of horrific diseases that are near impossible to effectively treat, its near impossible to detect at the lower levels that can still easily infect people, the tests that we do have each take at least 72 hours, and the only things that kill it other than heat make food taste spoiled.

The problems that phage have in non-medical antimicrobial applications, namely that they are sensitive to things like heat and light, aren't really a problem in this kind of setting as the reason the phage are needed in the first place is that heat can't be applied.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:17 AM on October 1, 2013 [33 favorites]


Metafilter: A fledgling sausage maker
posted by Renoroc at 5:21 AM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thanks, blasdelb. Maybe it's time for me to become a fledgling ex-sausage maker. Christ, so freaking much can go wrong. I just want to feed people, to accidentally kill them.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:25 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


And now the federal shutdown means USDA food inspectors are furloughed, if I read correctly. Priorities are messed up!
posted by Jubal Kessler at 5:27 AM on October 1, 2013


I just want to feed people, to accidentally kill them.

Now I'm not quite so sad about missing that last Tokyo meetup ... :-)
posted by woodblock100 at 5:28 AM on October 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


As far as I know, woodblock, none of that was a result of my food. And as for flapjax, the doctors claim that he's not technically 'dead.'
posted by Ghidorah at 5:30 AM on October 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


> I just want to feed people, to accidentally kill them.

So says Ghidorah. I'm never going to view Destroy All Monsters in the same way again.
posted by ardgedee at 5:31 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm just here to serve man!
posted by Ghidorah at 5:32 AM on October 1, 2013 [17 favorites]


Happily for crap food makers, there are no inspectors until further notice.
posted by jaduncan at 5:35 AM on October 1, 2013


This is really cool. Thanks for posting. I was professionally interested in food safety on the production side for a handful of years and I'm really interested in this innovation because, as blasdelb notes, Listeria M. is a huge problem if you're making something that can't be heat-treated.

Fascinating. I'm a huge fan of biological solutions to these sorts of problems.
posted by gauche at 5:45 AM on October 1, 2013


Bagged salads are now Officially Dangerous. I recommend a steady diet of candy and alcohol until government resumes. And then, just double the alcohol.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 5:46 AM on October 1, 2013 [13 favorites]


I recommend a steady diet of candy and alcohol until government resumes.

So, my usual regimen, then.
posted by gauche at 5:48 AM on October 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


(Thanks for this article, Blasdelb. This is such a cool solution to a scary problem!)
posted by bitter-girl.com at 5:50 AM on October 1, 2013


This is utterly fascinating - the Soviets had an entire branch of medical science largely unknown to the west, one that could help solve the issue of antibiotic-resistance!* See, when people talk about "alternative medicine", this is the real deal. Science is awesome.


(*Along with throttling way back on anti-biotics. It's annoying when you know you have a sinus infection and the doc wants to wait a week in case it's just a cold, but I understand and approve of his reluctance to hand out a run of amoxicillin.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:52 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"This is pretty classic What Could Possibly Go Wrong material here."

What if I told you there were at least four orders of magnitude more phage currently in your body than human cells? Our bodies already naturally rely on phage to control microbial populations in our guts and while bacterial viruses might sound scary in a fear of the unknown kind of way, they are not at all unknown to our immune systems which are already intimately familiar with them and they work in concert to keep you healthy. This also isn't even a new biotechnology kind of thing, the use of phages is now nearly a hundred years old and we have safety data that goes back to before the beginnings of modern medicine.

Phages cannot infect human cells, they are evolved to be incredibly specific in adsorbing to particular bacteria so as to avoid wasting their DNA in other bacterial cells that they cannot productively infect, and we are separated from bacteria by a billion years of evolution. Even if a phage could somehow get its DNA into a human cell it wouldn't be able to do anything, all of the machinery they are designed by evolution to co-opt is either missing or accomplishes the similar task using a fundamentally different tool. Our cells are also very intricately designed by evolution to be incredibly resistant to our own viruses that themselves have one order more intricate ways to avoid our cells resistance mechanisms, phages that are built for bacterial systems - however much more beautifully devastating they may be - don't stand a chance.

I had figured that the fact that I am not connected to the author or any of the people interviewed in any way beyond having met them once or twice at a conference would make this an OK post for metafilter, but being someone who is connected to the field generally I hadn't imagined that this would be in any way controversial. I guess I'll have to be cautious and maybe memail the mods for guidance if this becomes an issue for the thread. The article itself relates a general fear of fear within the community, that is always kind of at the back of our minds, but it has never really been a problem for us at all as, even though phages aren't widely known, the concepts are very intuitive and compelling. Even the crunchy granola folks that other scientific communities have trouble with have, if anything, only been a problem for us in being too enthusiastic and saying positive things that we can't back up, discrediting us by association.

"As long as Intralytix (God, that name)"

You'll like the name of another company, which is trying to sell the critters to big companies, even more - OmniLytics
posted by Blasdelb at 5:55 AM on October 1, 2013 [24 favorites]


Blasdelb, personally, I really appreciate the post, as it's given me a lot (more) to think about. On that list is if any of this stuff is available in Japan, and under what name.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:03 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yo, that electron microscope photo of two phages chilling? You know, the one with the caption "A close-up view of bacteriophages" ?

Understatement of the year.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 6:06 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Could a phage infect mitochondria?
posted by claudius at 6:08 AM on October 1, 2013


I was going to suggest that pearl clutching would begin in about 5 seconds but it looks like even the quack Mercola is saying that phages are good and safe to use, unless he thinks he can sell more crap if they are bad then he will switch to keep the scared ignorant money rolling in.
posted by koolkat at 6:08 AM on October 1, 2013


It's annoying when you know you have a sinus infection and the doc wants to wait a week in case it's just a cold, but I understand and approve of his reluctance to hand out a run of amoxicillin.

Thanks to allergies and bone spurs in my sinuses, I get a few sinus infections a year. Some time ago, I asked my doctor and my ENT if I could just wait out these infections - unless they lasted too long, or got really bad. I was tired of taking pills that probably weren't doing anything but increasing antibiotic resistance and screwing with my stomach. The docs were overjoyed to agree. I haven't taken antibiotics for a sinus infection in a year or two, with no increased duration of illness or misery per (frequent) infection.

Most sinus infections are viral, it's not easy to tell the difference between a viral and a bacterial sinus infection, and antibiotics may not do a great job with the ones that are bacterial in the first place. CDC: "Acute sinusitis will almost always get better on its own. It is better to wait and take antibiotics only when they are needed."

YMMV, perhaps. I'm also a fan of finding solutions to our ridiculous antibiotic resistance/over-usage problems, though. If phages will help with a scary thing like listeria, bring on the damned phages.
posted by Coatlicue at 6:12 AM on October 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Could a phage infect mitochondria?"

Even if phage DNA were to make its way into a mitochondria, which would require a huge set of ridiculous things to happen and not happen, it still wouldn't be able to do anything beyond probably inactivate the organelle. There really isn't anywhere near complete metabolism inside of a human mitochondria, with most of the tasks associate with maintaining life accomplished by the wider cell. Even bigger phage still need cellular mechanisms to productively infect that would be simply not there anymore.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:16 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everyone keep doing what you're doing, Blasdelb in particular. This is turning into most information-dense thread I've seen here in some time.
posted by mhoye at 6:17 AM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


For a bit more on phages, here is Pub Med link to a short history/review of phage therapy. Phages are actually pretty neat (I work with/for someone who works on phages, although I'm a secretary and not a scientist) and my impression is that were they only profitable, they'd be a lot more widely used. They have potential as anti-bacterial treatment in humans, for instance.

When we ship bacteriophages, we have a whole page of "this is just a harmless phage that cannot hurt humans do not stop it at customs and go all panic stations please" boilerplate that we include.
posted by Frowner at 6:20 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bagged salads are now Officially Dangerous. I recommend a steady diet of candy and alcohol until government resumes.

Didn't we just have a thread on scurvy? Be sure to eat all your Skittles.
posted by zamboni at 6:20 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Blasdelb, you mentioned the huge number of phage already in our bodies at any given time, but have these companies tested for the effects of these new phage on the native gut bacterial populations? I guess I'm asking about the phage equivalent of giving someone a antibiotic-induced C. dificile infection.
posted by Osrinith at 6:26 AM on October 1, 2013


> What if I told you there were at least four orders of magnitude more phage currently in your body than human cells?

For that matter, if everything about you were taken away except the micro-nematodes you contain, we'd still see a sort of ghostly you there. Stuff lives in us, it's almost always OK.
posted by jfuller at 6:26 AM on October 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Blasdelb, personally, I really appreciate the post, as it's given me a lot (more) to think about. On that list is if any of this stuff is available in Japan, and under what name."

If you happen to be a salmon or carp farmer I know there are academics working on industrial scale applications of phage for fish pathogens there who work with companies, but that is about all I know of for Japan specifically. The product they're talking about in the article ships internationally from the Netherlands but its not really set up for non-industrial buyers, same with Intralytics. There is though an aftershave that Micreos now has out on the market, which can be ordered online, that includes the lytic enzymes that Staphylococcus phage use to destroy their hosts when they're done with them - though Staph is not really a major component in either acne or rosacea.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:37 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Since I am pregnant, the word listeria strikes a very special fear in my heart. Along with rage.

Fuck you, listeria, for not letting me eat cold cuts, delicious unpasteurized cheese, and soft serve froyo. SOFT SERVE FROYO.
posted by lydhre at 6:49 AM on October 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Blasdelb, you mentioned the huge number of phage already in our bodies at any given time, but have these companies tested for the effects of these new phage on the native gut bacterial populations? I guess I'm asking about the phage equivalent of giving someone a antibiotic-induced C. dificile infection."

This is actually one of the more exciting aspect of using phage, in addition to being one of its most frustrating, how incredibly specific they are allows their use to be targeted only at problem populations with a vanishingly small number of innocent bystanders. For these companies specifically, Listeria spp. are not a natural part of a healthy gut, and so eliminating them will not cause problems. However, more generally, we know that even phage preparations that take a more shotgun approach like Intestiphage/Intesti-bacto-phage/ინტესტიფაგი, which targets 20 different pathogenic gastrointestinal bacterial species with however many phage it takes to hit 80% of each strain in Georgia each year on top of all the old ones, have never reported problems with this in their 80+ years of clinical use.

Really we would have a very difficult time causing problems to a human gut using phage even if we wanted to due to the fantastic diversity contained in the gut and the particular specificity of phage.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:50 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Most sinus infections are viral, it's not easy to tell the difference between a viral and a bacterial sinus infection, and antibiotics may not do a great job with the ones that are bacterial in the first place.

This is absolutely true in the aggregate - in the specific, my brother and I both have recurring bacterial sinus infections that respond very well to a run of antibiotics. However, I don't expect my Doc to just take my word on it that it "feels bacterial," I have a 4 y.o. in daycare. The sniffles and colds are a monthly occurrence during wintertime... sometimes it is just a viral thing. I can wait.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:56 AM on October 1, 2013


This is pretty classic What Could Possibly Go Wrong material here.

Come now, in the US of A its already known how the going wrong will happen.

Instead of practising safe and clean meat handling procedures the large processors of food will instead treat this as a way to do post clean-up. Examples of this would be the treatment of bacteria infected material with Ammonia to lower the contamination count - AKA pink slime. Or using radiation on the outgoing side of the process to sterilize the meat.

A well developed phage process would just mean less sanitary processing because the excuse would be 'fix it in post with the phages'.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:09 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


If phage treatment in food processing catches on in a big (i.e. industrial factory farm) way, if we'll see more of an issue of bacterial resistance to the phages used. My understanding is that phages do not have a lot of the same issues with resistance as antibiotics, since you can use multiple varieties of phages in a single dose and their specificity means you won't have the same issues of toxicity you would with multiple antibiotics. Also, it's easier to find new phages and mutated strains than it is to develop a new class of antibiotics.

I'm more wondering, that if employed on a large scale, how long it would take for a widely used preparation of phages (Industry Standard Phage Mix A, or something), to decline in efficacy. Would the solution be to regularly alter the composition of the phage dose? So that large companies, instead of buying a single compound in bulk, would instead have contracts to get supplied with an annual formulation, more like a flu shot.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:13 AM on October 1, 2013


Isn't there a risk of possibly enhancing bacterial mutations with a phage approach through lateral gene transfer?
posted by oceanjesse at 7:17 AM on October 1, 2013


Also, pharma/bio-tech names with vague allusions to science things but mostly sound silly aren't restricted to phage purveyors. LigoCyte used to be major purveyor of Norovirus through it's vaccine work, although it's sadly been bought by the much more banally named Takeda. Zoetis is still going strong though!
posted by Panjandrum at 7:21 AM on October 1, 2013


I'm more wondering, that if employed on a large scale, how long it would take for a widely used preparation of phages (Industry Standard Phage Mix A, or something), to decline in efficacy.

Southwestern Medical Center at he University of Texas Dallas work with Enterococcus Faecalis (the V583 strain) may give a clue once one can figure out how long the wild battle has been waged.

Also - how would the phage resistance get back-tracked from the meat-mincing if part of the protocol was to weekly do boiling hot 100% scrub down cleaning to prevent a resistant population from having a reservation to breed from?
posted by rough ashlar at 7:26 AM on October 1, 2013


He uses pork from a special breed of pigs and marinates it in a slurry of dark maple syrup and spices.

What a delicious sentence!
posted by snottydick at 7:28 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Instead of practising safe and clean meat handling procedures the large processors of food will instead treat this as a way to do post clean-up. Examples of this would be the treatment of bacteria infected material with Ammonia to lower the contamination count - AKA pink slime. Or using radiation on the outgoing side of the process to sterilize the meat."
Listeria is actually not really a concern in Pink Slime/Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT) as it can just be repeatedly pasteurized, and is always cooked in a commercial setting where the meat can be sure to get up to temperature - the ammonia in it is not really for listeria. With listeria, good hygienic practices are absolutely no guarantee and it is if anything more of a problem outside of big sloppy industrial foods.
"A well developed phage process would just mean less sanitary processing because the excuse would be 'fix it in post with the phages'."
This is really the thinking that Omnilytics is using to sell its industrial phage products to big meat packers, for example using phage against coliforms in the hide wash that cattle go through on their way from CAFOs into slaughterhouses to wash off as much of the poop as possible. This is one of the - several - reasons Omnilytics has has problems recruiting talent from the scientific community, but phage are in no way limited to use with this sort of model.
"Come now, in the US of A its already known how the going wrong will happen."
This really isn't an especially fair generalization to make about food processing in the US. Outside of meat processing, the US actually has a reputation for being obsessive well past the point of absurdity about good hygienic practices and sterility, particularly in parts of the industry like yogurt production.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:33 AM on October 1, 2013 [10 favorites]


"I'm more wondering, that if employed on a large scale, how long it would take for a widely used preparation of phages (Industry Standard Phage Mix A, or something), to decline in efficacy. Would the solution be to regularly alter the composition of the phage dose? So that large companies, instead of buying a single compound in bulk, would instead have contracts to get supplied with an annual formulation, more like a flu shot."

You've hit on one of the big unanswered questions about industrial and medical applications of phage that really can't be answered properly until after phage are in widespread use. We all know that phages are not like a drug for heart disease, and will likely lose their effectiveness on the populations of bacteria we want them to address even faster than antibiotics will due to similar kinds of resistance, but no one really knows how much faster. In the Republic of Georgia where phage have been used since the 30s, and part of the standard of care since the 40s and 50s, they updated their cocktails regularly every 6 months as part of the same centralized Soviet programs that monitored problem strains of bacteria and stayed on top of things. The faster it happened to more responsive the cocktails would be to new strains and new resistance mechanisms but also the more expensive they would be. Outside of a centralized Soviet model this becomes a tricky question that is also complicated by how the FDA and European equivalents are still figuring out with us as a community how to effectively regulate the safety and efficacy of phage preparations. The answer we generally want them to arrive at is exactly like you suspected, a vaccine model, where the specific kinds of phage preparations can each go through a rigorous process to be recognized as safe enough where each new phage doesn't need to go through more than the testing needed to make sure that it is the same in the ways that matter. Just like how each flu vaccine doesn't need to go through the same kinds of testing that the original flu vaccine did so that it can be made available fast enough to come out every year. Of course they have no business letting us do this until we can show them enough non-Soviet data to make an absolutely rock solid case, which we really can't yet, but that is what we want.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:47 AM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


LAMBDA PHAGE ARE AWESOME.

...OK, I'll go read the article properly now. But seriously, phage are beautifully engineered little fuckers.
posted by maryr at 7:47 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Listeria is actually not really a concern

And here's the start of the talking past each other. While the topic of Listeria is the meat of the post, the frame around it is "For Safer Food, Just Add Viruses" - thus allowing non-LIsteria conversation. Yet later:

You've hit on one of the big unanswered questions about industrial and medical applications of phage that really can't be answered properly until after phage are in widespread use.

Now the scope is broad and non-LIsteria limited. So which is it, limited to Listeria or broad?

Limiting to Listeria also avoids then a whole conversation about how sloppy/bad the front end will be if the processors can just apply some technology on the back end to clean up front end mistakes. I've posted the defence of 'what can go wrong' with a fairly obvious one.

Outside of meat processing, the US actually has a reputation for being obsessive well past the point of absurdity about good hygienic practices and sterility,

Yea, just keep telling oneself that. *coff* Salmonella Peanut Butter *coff*

Now, if you want to provide breakdowns VS other Nations or if the UDSA inspectors are all gone for a long time and the rate of food borne disease do not go up then The Blue will have some fine Listeria breeding material/Libertarian attractant about how Industry does a great job.

The USDA shutdown issue isn't even a day old and I'm sure others have data to make a front page post on how good US food processing is VS other nations so I don't expect much about either in this discussion. (bonus points on some sort of data normalization of processed food VS diabetes/obesity health care costs because it'd be interesting to see how much is spent making bulk processed food 'safe' gets spent instead on health care issues because of the existence of, say, safe hot-pockets)
posted by rough ashlar at 7:59 AM on October 1, 2013


"Isn't there a risk of possibly enhancing bacterial mutations with a phage approach through lateral gene transfer?"
There is! But it is trivial to avoid in an industrial or medical setting.

Many strains of pathogenic S. aureus as well as E. coli O157:H7 of Jack in the Box fame, Shigella, cholera, botulism, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and a whole bunch of described shrimp and insect diseases are associated with prophages. Essentially, all "live" phages can go through what is called a lytic life cycle when they infect a cell, shut down host metabolism and substitute their own, replicate their DNA, construct and pack viral particles, and then lyse the cell for the new particles to hunt for more cells. Some phages (known as temperate phages and somewhat analogous to retroviruses) can also go through a lysogenic life cycle where instead of shutting down the hosts metabolism, they insert their genomes into the host chromosome and wait. This creates what are call lysogens, sort of a phage/bacteria hybrid, where the phage hides and lets the host replicate it with its own chromosome when it divides. Now these temperate phages have an interest in their hosts doing well and sometimes have exotic genes, which get expressed independently of the host lethal ones, that often contribute to host success in weird situations, like pathogenesis.

Thus, for example, cholera isn't really caused by Vibrio cholerae like you may have heard but instead by the CTX-φ and TLC-φ phages. Vibrio are, for the most part, planktonic marine bacteria content to scavenge for low levels of organic substrates in the oceans and leave us well enough alone. However, when infected by the temperate CTX-φ and TLC-φ phagesVibrio cholerae suddenly gets a pathogenicity cassette of DNA with a type IV pillus and the profoundly nasty cholera toxinVibrio cholerae is like the pleasant dude who rolls around on the back of a truck with a jumpsuit and a NASCAR hat picking up the garbage in front of your home, CTX-φ is the agent that turns him into a poison-syringe/grappling-hook wielding madman looking to feed off of your guts.  As phages become more beneficial to their hosts the need for phage virulence to their hosts decreases and they begin to lose the genes necessary to enact a lytic life cycle, becoming what are often called cryptic prophages. These kinds of degraded helpful viruses are critical in evolution, hell more than 8% of the human genome is immediately recognizable as viral and undoubtedly most of it has at least distant viral origins, but this kind of thing is pretty trivial to avoid, particularly now with how cheap sequencing is. We can just not use these kinds of phages.

To undergo this alternate lysogenic kind of life cycle a bacteriophage must have a bunch of proteins that are each pretty recognizable. For any of it to work they've got to have a very strong transcriptional repressor capable of completely turning off all of the phages host lethal genes without disrupting the host too much. To be stable they generally also have an integrase and an exase capable of hiding their DNA in the host's chromosome and taking it out again that can also be looked for in a sequence. These phages are also pretty easy to spot on a microbiological level as, when they are propagated, they leave a certain percentage of their hosts alive and give those host immunity to their sister phages with that transcriptional repressor. When phage are propagated on Petri dishes growing a lawn of bacteria to form plaques from growing outwards at the expense of their host, kind of like an anti-colony, temperate phage form visibly cloudy plaques from the surviving lysogens they leave behind.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:17 AM on October 1, 2013 [14 favorites]


Now, if you want to provide breakdowns VS other Nations

I can't find a nice simple chart comparing rates in all first-world nations, but from what I can Google up the US seems to be at the low-end of listeria infections-per-million of population. Here's one recent report that says the US has about 2-3 cases per million. That compares with 4 per million in Canada, a high of 7.5 per million in Sweden. According to this paper (PDF), in 2007 there were 5 cases per million in France. All in all, it's not clear that your gut sense that the US is a notorious outlier on food safety is borne out by the numbers.
posted by yoink at 8:36 AM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Despite precautions, contamination is still possible. That's why food producers are looking for new ways to ensure safety." ...Or they could, you know, stop mass breeding and slaughtering animals in the most horrible way imaginable and then feed us their rotting carcasses. And before you tell me "oh, but non-meat foods can also carry dangerous bacteria you silly hippie," ask yourself how non-meat foods get infected with icky killer nasties...
posted by Mooseli at 9:26 AM on October 1, 2013


All in all, it's not clear that your gut sense that the US is a notorious outlier on food safety is borne out by the numbers.

Which is why I asked and hope someone who has researched such can put up a FPP about the topic.

The contents of The Jungle is why we have the USDA.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:35 AM on October 1, 2013


Blasdelb, This is one of the most interesting articles I have ever read on Metafilter. I must admit, my hands were reaching for my pearls, but after reading the further comments you made, it helped me understand what I had read. I find this passage to be very informative:

In Georgia, a former Soviet state, phages remained a key strategy in the fight against infection. When Georgian microbiologist Alexander Sulakvelidze arrived at the University of Maryland Medical Center in 1993, he assumed other countries still used phages, too.

Sulakvelidze came to the U.S. to work with infectious disease specialist J. Glenn Morris, who was grappling with the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When Sulakvelidze arrived, Morris told him about a particularly troubling case—a patient with an Enterococcus infection that failed to respond to standard antimicrobials. “How come the bacteriophages didn’t kill the bacteria?” Sulakvelidze asked. Morris had heard of phages, but he didn’t know about their therapeutic potential.


Although I wonder how the bacteriophages would affect a person on immunosuppressant therapy?
posted by JujuB at 9:57 AM on October 1, 2013


Seconding, or thirding, or 50thing as the case may be. This is a fascinating article and I had no idea that any bacteriophages were approved for use in food processing.

The article seems to do a great job of laying out the potential risks and benefits as well; neither blindly rah-rah nor OMG WTF. This is how popularization of science ought to be.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:49 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


While I echo the concern that a few have expressed here that such techniques might allow a pretext for unsanitary practices to go on, it does seem that phages are much less conducive to that than broad-spectrum antibiotics. What would be the point in isolating phages and continuing to dynamically manage them for the most intractable pathogens if you're going to be cheap and slovenly in every other respect? On the whole I'm encouraged to believe that this informs better practices all the way down the line, in exactly the way that antibiotic abuse doesn't.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:54 AM on October 1, 2013


Mooseli: "...Or they could, you know, stop mass breeding and slaughtering animals in the most horrible way imaginable and then feed us their rotting carcasses."

If you read the linked article more closely you'll see that the guy whose sausages your quote is captioning raises his own special breed of pigs and does everything on a small artisinal scale in exactly the way you want, yet is still afraid of Listeria. This particular problem is indeed a scientific one and not a social one as we really don't have the means to combat Listeria in ready to eat or raw foods otherwise.

The more general concern you're raising however is something I've had to give a lot of thought to and I'd like to share my perspective, such as it is. Two positions ago I was working on a project with phages against E. coli O157:H7 where the general idea was to treat the bacteria in the cattle that act as a reservoir, rather than trying to use the phage in patients who are already fucked. It turns out that E. coli O157:H7 exists quite happily in cattle and sheep, doing nothing to hurt them, and its presence is phage mediated in nature. When there are phage against it you don't find the bug, and can't succeed at experimentally giving the bug to ruminants, but when phage are absent its spreads quickly. Thus by using phage against E. coli O157:H7 in cattle feed in CAFOs we could ensure that in this nasty, awful, omnipresently shit filled environment, the bugs that were being passed around as cattle desperately try to clean each other with their tongues weren't like the Jack in The Box strain.

The problem with E. coli O157:H7, in a fundamental way, isn't really a scientific one; we already have all the scientific knowledge necessary to eliminate it. When either meat or dairy cattle are fed corn or other grains it causes the otherwise neural pH of the ruminant's stomachs to drop like a rock and digest the corn without the aid of its natural gut flora, just like our stomachs do. Normally, however, a cow eats the bacteria that eat grass in the roughly pH neutral environment of a healthy grass eating cow and normally that bacteria would be absolutely harmless to us as it would never survive our very low stomach pH. O157:H7 only really becomes a problem as the gut flora present in the cow comes pre-selected to survive in a low pH environment our main defense is useless, causing disease. Additionally, cattle are raised in situations that are just obscene in their completely unnecessary cruelty and potential for breading bugs like E. coli O157:H7, ensuring that it is in their guts and on their hides to begin with. Even then, it wouldn't be so much of a problem for us if the speeds at with the cattle are disassembled were not so high, or the labor force that does it were not so profoundly mistreated and transient, causing shit to end up mixed in with the meat. While Americans no longer really have a taste for grass fed meat and the costs associated with it are actually non-trivial, the costs associated with fixing the worst aspects of CAFOs, slowing down line speeds, and not treating the largely immigrant work force that packages meat like they were chattel are fractions of a penny on the pound - beyond trivial. The only reason this happens is that it is allowed to.

While I was characterizing phages that would be useful towards these efforts, developing models that would be needed for them, and doing unrelated but very productive basic science with the phages involved, this was a fact of the nature of what my work was that was constantly on my mind, and still is. The science I was doing was being funded to solve a problem that was fundamentally not scientific in nature and, even if it succeeded in its stated goals, could only hope to hide larger problems that are fundamentally moral and social in nature. It also didn't help that one of the organizations funding the work had my great grandfather murdered in cold blood many years ago. To this day I still don't regret my work then; it did a lot of good training me as a scientist, providing a backdrop for useful basic research, and I still maintain that it's bandaid for the fundamentally internal problem it addresses is still a good thing - if nothing else our moral failings in agriculture shouldn't be taken out on the kidneys of children.

I'm not an activist, its just not who I am, and as passionately as I feel about our fundamentally social problems with agriculture its not really my calling - but it does seem to be yours. So I guess my question for you is, why attack the phage? While phage against E. coli O157:H7 wouldn't really be a solution, they aren't really the source of the true problem either. What purpose could distracting yourself from the fundamentally social questions you should be asking of society with attacking the value of the scientific ones I ask possibly serve? There are all sorts highly technical problems in society with profound moral and economic questions that are largely unaddressed by activists distracted by pretending, badly, to be scientists that they aren't. Attacking science for serving bad systems doesn't build alternative economic structures for us to serve as researchers, like the guy featured in the article has done, it doesn't do a damn thing to the consumer indifferent motherfuckers like Cargill and Tyson who cause the root problems, and it only feeds the basic scientific ignorance that evil corporations feed off of. Why can't we instead work together?
posted by Blasdelb at 11:07 AM on October 1, 2013 [15 favorites]


"Although I wonder how the bacteriophages would affect a person on immunosuppressant therapy?"

If anything it would be more likely to be effective. Bacteriophages are typically cleared by the immune system on the order of minutes to hours unless there are bacterial hosts being fed on that resupply the population of phage, which can then last on the order of weeks, the important figure is reproduced and freely accessible here. Our immune systems don't need to protect us from phage, and having more wouldn't hurt us on anything resembling the kind of scale we're talking about.

I did once see an abstract for a paper presented at a conference, which is no doubt long since lost having been filed away as a Soviet military secret only to not survive perestroika, where conscript 'volunteers' were injected intravenously with obscenely high concentrations of phage, like six orders of magnitude higher than the highest used therapeutically, to no ill effect the first time and 'moderate' fevers the second or third time. While intravenous applications might be a productive road to go down sometime in the future, no one is really talking about them now as we pick much lower hanging fruit, it does establish that immune reactions are something worth keeping in mind - and so if anything a doctor with an immune suppressed patient could probably justify using higher concentrations if they thought it would help.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:08 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


“When you’ve got a small company like this, you just want to make the best you can make,” Satzow says
&
it doesn't do a damn thing to the consumer indifferent motherfuckers like Cargill and Tyson who cause the root problems,

It does seem more of a systemic problem. I live in Chicago. I don't eat polish sausage. Not much of a commercial meat guy anyway. But I never really liked the taste. Been in Amish country. Had some meat there that tasted fantastic. "What is this?" "Oh, you call it polish sausage."

One can argue animal feces as far as vegetables go. I'd point out we're animals too, and mass harvesting employs a lot of people. They don't always have proper facilities or training.

I don't know much about vectors but I do know no one's ever gotten sick from my meat. I haven't needed to irradiate it or inject it with bacteria. Mostly because I don't let feces splatter all over it (not to get into the differences between dressing out omnivores and ruminant vs. non-rumnant herbivores) - I think we just accept it as part of the production process that crap is going to get all over it. It's going to get fly blown in some cases. Birds are going to crap on it or there's going to be feces in the water used to wash it, etc. etc.
So we need to use chemicals, preservatives, phages, gamma radiation, whatever, because it's not properly - cleanly - butchered in the first place.

Perhaps it's not economically feasible. I mean, we're not all going to hunt our own meat or ride around in buggies. But by the same token there's no real need for the amount of meat we eat. I'm not a vegetarian by any stretch, but the problem seems to be we'll eat anything that's shoveled off the floor if it's doused in enough ammonia, just because it's 'meat.'

That combined with the distance between the producer and the consumer (very attentive to dirt when you know it's going to be going into your own mouth) seems to cause problems just generally. They had an outbreak in cantaloupe a few years ago. Jensen Bros. (?)

But there's not much you can do as a consumer, eating meat or not, if the producers don't hold up their end.

...Look at Abe Froman, sausage king of Chicago. You can never reach that guy for comment. He skips out on restaurant bills. Stole a 1961 Ferrari. The guy is untouchable. At least according to my police contact Sgt. Petersen.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:43 PM on October 1, 2013


gauche: "I recommend a steady diet of candy and alcohol until government resumes.

So, my usual regimen, then.
"

zamboni: "Didn't we just have a thread on scurvy? Be sure to eat all your Skittles."


Better: lemon drops. Bonus: you can eat or drink them!
posted by IAmBroom at 1:00 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


She swallowed the dog to catch the cat. She swallowed the cat to catch the bird. She swallowed the bird to catch the spider...
posted by snottydick at 1:28 PM on October 1, 2013


Or using radiation on the outgoing side of the process to sterilize the meat.

Is there anything wrong with using radiation to fix things like listeria? From what I know irradiation of meat, produce and any other food product is a really, really good way of preserving them and removing any bacteria.

Or is this just more pearl clutching about radiation (instead of phages?)

BTW I first heard of phages from a SF novel by Greg Bear I believe and since then have always wondered why they weren't used in conjunction with anti biotics-they would seem to compliment each other well and plug the holes the other leaves.
posted by bartonlong at 1:42 PM on October 1, 2013


"...from a SF novel by Greg Bear I believe"

Darwin's Radio.

This is a really fascinating thread!
posted by Kevin Street at 2:48 PM on October 1, 2013


Poked my head in here to do a command-f to see if Ghidora had posted yet. Didn't even need to; second comment!
さすが!
posted by GoingToShopping at 3:04 AM on October 2, 2013


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