Viruses: The New Food Additive

A decade ago we worried about irradiated food. Irradiation is a process by which fresh produce is zapped with low doses of radiation in order to slow spoilage. Good news for food retailers, but not an appealing prospect when you consider we’re supposed to eat that radioactive food.

Well here’s the latest volley in the battle between food retailers who want to keep stuff on the shelf longer and the consumers who want to eat food that is at least somewhat natural: a spray-on virus that eats bacteria, slowing the food’s rate of spoilage.

Uh… Yikes!

OK, I’m all for science. Heck I blew up all kinds of science kits when I was a kid. But this just seems weird and potentially dangerous. I imagine a huge “factor X” looming in there somewhere. I’m sure the virus itself is harmless, is it a mutation just waiting to happen?

On the other hand, the technology has potential for other, more drastic uses. For example, Intralytix, the company that makes the virus, is also working on solutions for E. coli and Salmonella problems. Who wouldn’t want to reduce those risks?

Personally, I’d prefer to stick with the old fashioned methods: buy fresh, and keep a clean kitchen.

Nature, Organics, Pesticides, and Factor X

In the debates over the value of organic food production, it is not uncommon for people to point out to the “dosage” factor when it comes to the use of pesticides. According to that argument, the numbers indicating the level of pesticides occurring in industrially farmed produce mean very little unless they are balanced against numbers that indicate how much is needed for the pesticides to be toxic.

It’s a good point. After all, it’s very easy to toss a bunch of numbers around and to scare people with talk of poisons and toxicology. The other view (the view, based on empirical research, that pesticides are only toxic in higher doses than occur in our food) is a necessary part of the discussion.

However, it is also too easy to dismiss common sense concerns just because they are not backed up by empirical data.

One problem with the empirical approach is that there is not very much agreement on things like toxicity levels. Ask a room full of toxicologists and you’ll probably get a dozen different answer for any given chemical. Come back in a year’s time and they will all have changed their minds and be quoting different numbers.

Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not that long since doctors would prescribe smoking tobacco for certain lung and throat ailments. The debate about how much alcohol is “permissible” during pregnancy is still going on. Every week we’re assaulted by news about how something that we thought was bad is actually good, and something that we thought was good is actually bad.

For me, that’s not even the real issue. The real trouble with the empirical approach is that it relies entirely on what we think we know, and not on what we don’t know.

For example, it is true that the levels of pesticides found in a lot of industrial foods are in “bug doses” – levels that will kill insects but not humans. But we know that some chemicals persist in our bodies and accumulate over time. So the dose of pesticides in that apple you’re eating today might not harm you, but what if you eat an apple a day for ten years? Add to that all the lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchinis, and other bug-dosed foods. What is the cumulative effect of hundreds and hundreds of small doses?

When people bring up the empirical science view, I’m always reminded of mad cow disease. Twenty years ago, the empirical voices saw nothing wrong with feeding ruminant protein back to ruminants. No big deal. It’s just food matter. Highly processed protein stuff. Couldn’t possibly be harmful.

I would argue that empirical science was missing an important common sense point: it is not natural for most ruminants to eat animal protein, especially when that protein comes from their own species. That’s cannibalism for Pete’s sake! It’s unnatural. Even if you cannot articulate or isolate a specific, empirically proved risk or threat, common sense tells you that it isn’t natural and that problems could arise from factors that you haven’t thought of.

Regardless, the science broke it down to a simple matter of protein and sustenance. They did not consider factor X, the unknown and unexpected component. Factor X is far more likely to occur when you are dabbling outside of the boundaries of things that occur naturally, because you are second-guessing the natural evolutionary processes.
In this case we know what happened: Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Supposedly nobody saw it coming. Nobody, that is, except the people who said “hey, it’s not natural for cows to eat cows. Something bad will come of this. I don’t know what, but something . . .” However, with a lack of specific empirical data to back up such concerns, few people listened.

I would argue that it is not natural for humans to ingest dozens of micro-doses of pesticides and fungicides every single day. I don’t know exactly what the toxicological implications are, and I have no numbers to back me up. But I know it isn’t natural to ingest that much artificial chemistry. (By “artificial” I mean chemicals that do not naturally occur in the food source.)

I’m not fanatical about it. Most of the food I eat is not sourced from organic producers. But the more I think about it, and as more organic options appear in the marketplace, the more I am inclined to buy those products and to support the (generally, but not always) small producers who make them.

In the end, I have only one liver. One pancreas. One brain. (OK, two kidneys.) Those, and the other organs in my body, cry out for nourishment every day. I enjoy feeding them – I like to shop, cook, and eat. But I don’t want to poison those organs if I can help it. I don’t want them to fail, because that puts me, the host, in a precarious position.

I am not absolutely convinced that the toxins added to our food supply will make me sick or kill me, but I am even less convinced that they will not. Because it makes sense that poison poisons. Even if just a little bit. But every day, a little bit more.


What is that, some kind of alien?


Actually, it’s the dainty little foot of a small sparrow that I found dead on the back deck. Those deadly-looking claws were used to hold the little guy up when he alighted onto branches, wires, and other things that required a pointy grip.

I don’t know if The Mini killed it or if it died of natural causes. But there it was, tits-up in the deck, all by itself. Poor critter.