FDA approves viruses that kill bacteria as additives to protect against food-borne illnesses

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

As the recent scare over spinach tainted with E. coli bacteria shows, food-borne illnesses are hard to prevent and can be deadly. A kind of germ vs. germ warfare is the latest advancement in the continual fight to combat common microbes that live in cold cuts, hot dogs, and sausages and kill hundreds of people a year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved spraying six bacteria-killing viruses on ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, including sliced ham and turkey. These special viruses, called bacteriophages, are meant to kill strains of listeria bacteria that cause a serious infection called listeriosis. Pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable to this infection. In the United States, about 2,500 people become seriously ill with listeriosis each year, and 500 of those die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“New studies show that when these viruses are used in different combinations, they can help kill bacteria that we find on food and that contribute to food-borne illnesses,” said Regina Bonnette, a dietitian at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.

“Just as there are good bacteria in the body and bad bacteria, there are good and bad viruses. There are viruses that help keep the bacteria and bad viruses in check. Using viruses that are better for us can be a more natural way to destroy bacteria that ends up in our food system,” she said. These viruses not only kill the bacteria, they destroy the bacteria’s DNA so they can’t reproduce.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in food-borne illnesses. This may be because we eat out more often, and we have more people who live longer with chronic diseases. They tend to be more susceptible to food-borne illnesses,” Bonnette said.

While these viruses target the listeria bacteria, other viruses that target E. coli and salmonella bacteria will be developed in the future, she said. Both E. coli and salmonella cause serious food-borne illnesses.

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