Sept. 19, 2006 — -- The food aisles don't seem very safe these days.
There are still no firm answers as to what caused an E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach that has now been reported in 21 states and taken one life.
And there are not many firm answers as to how to avoid similar outbreaks in the future. We know that people should wash all fresh foods to kill most germs and bacteria.
But water will not wash away E.coli, salmonella or listeria.
In its quest to find what else might work on these potentially deadly bacteria, the Food and Drug Administration gave the OK to an unusual -- somewhat creepy-sounding -- food safety solution.
In August, the FDA approved the spraying of some foods with viruses in an effort to stop certain bacteria.
The spray isn't intended to battle E.coli but to destroy the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes.
Listeria is a reasonably nasty bacteria found in soil, water and the intestines of food-producing animals. Animals who carry listeria can spread it to meat, dairy products or to other products that roll around a processing plant en route to your plate.
Roughly 2,500 people in the United States become seriously ill with listeriosis each year, and of those, about 500 die.
The FDA has now approved a virus-cocktail spray that might prevent listeriosis. The spray, called LMP 102, is a mixture of six different special viruses called bacteriophages -- viruses that infect only bacteria, not people, animals or plants.
Even though these bacteriophages cannot infect people, are they safe?
Not completely. Bacteriophages, like all viruses, contain protein. These proteins can cause allergic reactions, just like milk proteins cause milk allergies.
The bacteriophages might also get into battle with the friendly bacteria in the digestive system, making it harder for the body to digest food. But that's a risk the FDA already takes by allowing the use of antibiotics on farms.
The FDA currently allows bacteriophages to be used in pesticides, including those sprayed on crops. But this is the first time that the FDA has regulated the use of bacteriophages as a food additive. Other countries actually use bacteriophages in antibiotic drugs.
The idea here is that these six bacteriophages will infect and kill any listeria bacteria that might linger on ready-to-eat meats such as sliced ham and turkey.
Scientists might not determine how effective it is until the product becomes commercially available. Although it's not available yet, the spray could be in processing plants in as little as six months.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, use of this spray will have to be marked on the food just like any other ingredient on the label.
Consumers might soon see the words "bacteriophage preparation" on cold cuts. While this preparation is intended to make food safer, it does not come without its own risks.