April 11, 2009

Factory farmed pork safer than free range? In a pig's eye

Maybe you saw the NY Times op-ed by James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

"[S]cientists have found that free-range pork can be more likely than caged pork to carry dangerous bacteria and parasites," warns Professor McWilliams:
Free range is not necessarily natural. And neither is its taste. In fact, free range is like piggy day care, a thoughtfully arranged system designed to meet the needs of consumers who despise industrial agriculture and adore the idea of wildness.

To equate the highly controlled grazing of pigs with wild animals in a state of nature is to insult the essence of nature, domestication and wild pigs.
I wasn't under the impression that anyone was equating wild pigs with domestic pigs raised in a free range environment. But if McWilliams is suggesting that the choice is between the very real horrors [moral and environmental] of factory farms and "piggy day care," I'll vote for "day care," thanks. For anyone truly hell-bent on insulting pigs and domestication and the essence of nature, factory farming is the way to go.

And those dire warnings about "dangerous bacteria and parasites"? Marion Nestle to the rescue:
The study on which McWilliams based his op-ed is published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. The investigators actually measured "seropositivity" (antibodies) in the pigs' blood. But the presence of antibodies does not necessarily mean that the animals--or their meat--are infected. It means that the free-range pigs were exposed to the organisms at some point and developed immunity to them. The industrial pigs were not exposed and did not develop immunity to these microorganisms. But you would never know that from reading the op-ed. How come?

Guess who paid for the study? The National Pork Board, of course.
Read all about it here: "Sponsored Science" Strikes Again, by Marion Nestle at the Atlantic Food Channel blog.


Bill Fosher said...

I have to admit that I find some aspects of the "grow it in your back yard" movement more than a little cringeworthy. Animal husbandry information from crowdsourced publications like Sheep! Magazine can be absolutely horrific. I regularly hear things like "it can't be foot rot because he's only lame on the rear feet, and foot rot only affects the front feet." In what universe, one wonders?

And now some of these same rocket surgeons have bought into Joel "My mommy bought me another farm so I can keep on writing books and giving lectures" Salatin's idea that they should be able to slaughter and process their own animals out behind the shed and sell the meat to the general public through whatever channels they like.

Don't get me wrong. If someone wants to raise their own animals and slaughter them -- however poorly -- for their own consumption, I am all for it. (Provided, of course, that the level of husbandry doesn't fall so low as to constitute neglect or abuse, as it sometimes does.) But I refuse to buy into the proposal that just because something is raised and processed outside the confines of industrial agriculture it is a.) better for you, b.) safe to eat, and c.) had a good life.

Trichinosis is real. Listeriosis is real. Both of them will kill you. Both of them -- and dozens of other illnesses can come from improperly raised or processed meat. To pretend that these risks only attach to industrial grown meat processed in USDA inspected plants is foolishness.

Those of us in the local food movement need to own up to the fact that there is a skill set to raising animals, a skill set to slaughtering and butchering. Some of us remember our grandparents doing it perhaps, and we remember that they made it look easy. But we perhaps didn't see all the care that they took -- young eyes miss details, after all.

Good husbandry and good sanitation practice are two of the main skills that we need to re-learn if we are going to take control of the animal protein portion our food supply. Charging ahead as if these things didn't matter is tempting fate.

Rocambole said...

Huge, huge talk on my sustainable ag lists about this editorial. McWilliams then resurfaced claiming to be a friend of the Locovore (sp) and that he was just "trying to point out the flaws so that the movement will be better!"

Considering that he has a book coming out that at least from the title, sounds like he's going to give Slow Food a drubbing. As I told my collegues, it's going to be "call-in time to NPR talk shows pretty soon."

Anonymous said...

Today far too many of us lack the agricultural peer support our parents/grandparents grew up with. Raising your own chickens, pigs or cattle wasn't a unique or fashionable 'lifestyle choice' when I was young. It was just a common and accepted way to save money.

And yeah - I live on the edge of town, am adding a flock of laying hens and will raise a pig and a few lambs this summer with a friend who has a large barn and lots of pasture space. But at least I can claim to be a yuppie locavore with rural roots ;-)

kushibo said...

Interesting discussion, and I appreciate the debunking of the NYT editorial.

I came looking for information on the dangers of factory-farmed pork, especially in light of the recent swine flu outbreak, which has prompted many countries, including my home of South Korea, to step up inspection of pork from the US and Mexico.

Any thoughts?