What Is Shiga Toxin Phage – And Why It Can Be Lethal

Tom Willey
T & D Willey Farms

None of us can remain unconcerned about the tragic food safety drama unfolding in Germany over the last several weeks. Much remains to be learned regarding the origin of another seemingly novel pathogen, its stunning virulence and lethality, and the unusual demographic skew of its victims (healthy young women, 20-50 yrs. old).

Though this O104:H4 E. coli demon that has sickened over 3,000 Europeans, hospitalized one quarter of those and killed near 40, it has not been found on any produce. Overwhelming epidemiological evidence leads to a north German organic sprout operation, five employees of which were themselves infected with the pathogen.

It’s important to recognize that sprout production is not farming.

Germinating seed in sterile growth chambers for consumption as fresh foods is more akin to operating a laboratory. Such seeds, sprouting not into the microbially diverse and competitive environment that is soil, are rather prone to proliferating any microbe with which they may be contaminated. Most organic and conventional sprouters attempt sanitizing large volumes of seed, often sourced from distant suppliers, by bathing these in concentrated chlorine solutions.

Even such toxic methods are not always fail-safe, as demonstrated by more than 30 FDA-documented disease outbreaks associated with sprouts in this country over 15 years. A dear organic colleague, Ken Kimes, abandoned the business several years back after uneasiness around “organic” China-sourced mung bean seed overcame his long-held passion for sprouting.

    [Editor’s Note: Recall data from the US Food and Drug Administration shows that there have been 10 recalls of sprouts in the past 2.5 years (since April 2009), and 9 were because conventional sprouts tested positive for foodborne pathogens (90% conventional, 10% organic). Several outbreaks in the US in the past couple of years have been linked to sprouts, but none were linked directly to organic sprouts.]

Why of recent are increasingly more dangerous E. coli, a largely helpful species inhabiting the guts of all mammals, emerging from the environment and infecting our food? Microbiologists point out the Shiga toxin, responsible for severe kidney damage in humans (HUS), is not native to the E. coli genome but toxin-coding DNA can be transferred there by bacteriophages, a category of virus that infects microbes.

The O104:H4 pathogen has been found resistant to multiple, entire classes of antibiotics. Noted E. coli researchers, Dr. David Acheson of Leavitt Partners and Dr. Heather Allison of the Univ. of Liverpool, suggest antibiotic exposure, inducing an SOS response in bacteria, amplifies the potential of microbes being infected by Shiga toxin coding phage.

An increasingly dangerous collusion between formerly benign bacterial strains and Shiga toxin phage, likely conferring survival advantage on these organisms, could result from use and misuse of massive quantities of antibiotics by modern industrial societies, in both our confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and human medicine.

This relatively ignorant but rewarding practice mirrors tough lessons farmers eventually learned from the insect world when we indiscriminately unleashed pesticides on their communities over several decades. Today’s all out war waged against microbes may be an enterprise we can no longer afford.

– Tom Willey is a member of The Cornucopia Institute’s Policy Advisory Panel. Tom, along with his wife, owns a seventy-five acre farm that is part of the Central San Joaquin Valley in Madera, CA. He has been a farmer since 1980, and T & D Willey Farms has been certified organic since 1987.

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