Listeria a Growing Problem in Lunchmeat

Creative Commons License photo credit: denn

Eating your turkey lunch meat and the wrapping too?

by Guest Blogger, Sylvia Onusic, PhD.

Lunch meat is the main carrier of Listeria monocytogenes infections, jeopardizing food safety in the United States year after year.  Lunch meat is mainly used in sandwiches, and as a quick lunch item for those on-the-go, purchased from fast food restaurants, or even  gas station foodmarts.  In addition to containing high levels of the bacteria which shed harmful toxins into the food product, lunch meats contain the carcinogen nitrites and nitrates which serve as a preservative for the meats.

Of all food borne pathogens, Listeria produces some of the most deadly consequences. It is the leading cause of death among all food borne bacterial pathogens, with 20 to 30 percent of infections resulting in death.  Each year about 2,500 illnesses and 500 deaths in the United States are reported as a result of Listeria infection.

Food Industry Accomodates Pathogen, Instead of Seeking to Eliminate It

But instead of improving the conditions which cause Listeria in such numbers, research funds are being dedicated to kill the bacteria already in the meat, as if the presence of Listeria is a fact of life. Lancaster Farming recently reported that “a team of food scientists in Penn State’s College of Agriculture has shown that  an edible film can be used for wrapping read-to eat meat products to deliver a slow release of a naturally occurring antimicrobial agent capable of killing a food borne pathogen.”  The antimicrobial, sakacin A, “is produced from a strain of Lactobacillus which is created during the fermentation process.”  The edible food wrap is called “pullulan film,”  is produced by the fungal organism, Aureobasidium pulluland., according to Catherine Cutter, the lead researcher on the team.  Sakacin A in or on the pullulan film constitute the new product tested in the study.

Where this fungal organism comes from and how it is produced was not discussed in the article. Also not discussed was involvement of a GMO organism in production.   Is the strain of Lactobacillus which produces the antibacterial patented, as is the bacteria in a highly publicized expensive yogurt packaged in a green container, or is it a naturally occurring strain? And what about people who eat a lot of lunch meat?

Dr. Cutter said that the film will be a way to extend shelf life by reducing the growth phase of the pathogens in the meat. She said that “the packaging has some really neat properties;” among them, “it is completely edible.” But she doesn’t talk about what happens to the pulluland film after it is eaten. That is anyone’s guess.  Does it kill or interfere with probiotic colonies in the body?  We don’t know. We also don’t know public acceptance of the product. But the research money, our tax dollars at work, protecting the industry that produces this tainted product in the first place, has already been spent.

Lancaster Farming says that the researchers focused on Listeria because “it represents an important worldwide public-heath problem.  Foods considered at high risk are ready to eat foods and foods which undergo long term storage.”

In addition to the packing films, bacteriophages are being used by industry to kill Listeria. A bacteriophage is a virus that invades a bacteria. The FDA recently approved a cocktail containing six bacteriophages intended to be sprayed on lunch meats and fruits.

Government Focuses on Raw Milk, Not Lunchmeat Where Risk is Greater

The FDA and various State agricultural and health departments, in the past five years, have often cited Listeria in farm fresh milk (raw milk) as a reason to shut down farmers producing it.  In almost all cases, the milk, after testing, was found not to be tainted with Listeria, even though public health officials issued press releases and distributed the story to the media prior to receiving the test results.  If Listeria is a concern for food safety in farm fresh milk products, why hasn’t a university undertaken a study dedicated to this subject, as has been dedicated to lunch meats?

I know that I won’t be eating any lunch meat anytime soon. It has been banned from my home for years.  Not only is it a highly processed product with a full wallop of chemicals, but now will it will have an edible film to contain the potential pathogens that come along with it.

It is Safer to Make Your Own Lunchmeat

Is this wholesome food for a young child or aging parent who have a compromised immune system?  Please do not give your child or family lunch meat or eat it yourself, believing it is a safe and healthy product, especially if you are pregnant.  Complications of Listeria infection may include meningitis, encephalitis, pneumonia, septicemia, and others and are extremely severe in pregnancy.

A humanely and locally grown roasted leg of lamb, beef roast, or turkey breast, if cooked and stored properly, will serve as quick sandwich building material for a number of days.

Sylvia P. Onusic, Ph.D

Sylvia P. Onusic, Ph.D

Sylvia P. Onusic holds a PhD in Health Education and Nutrition. She has completed all coursework to qualify for Registered Dietitian. She is also a certified nutrition teacher in Pennsylvania and has taught nutrition in local high schools and on the university level. She is a member of the American Society for Nutrition, PASA- Pennsylvania Sustainable Agriculture, and Weston A Price Foundation.

Sylvia spoke at the 2nd International Raw Milk Symposium, on Raw Milk Perspectives in Europe. Click on for more info and to download Sylvia’s power point presentation.


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