Editors' Note Appended
IS free-range pork better and safer to eat than conventional pork? Many consumers think so. The well-publicized horrors of intensive pig farming have fostered the widespread assumption that, as one purveyor of free-range meats put it, “the health benefits are indisputable.” However, as yet another reminder that culinary wisdom is never conventional, scientists have found that free-range pork can be more likely than caged pork to carry dangerous bacteria and parasites. It’s not only pistachios and 50-pound tubs of peanut paste that have been infected with salmonella but also 500-pound pigs allowed to root and to roam pastures happily before butting heads with a bolt gun.
The study published in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease that brought these findings to light last year sampled more than 600 pigs in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. The study, financed by the National Pork Board, discovered not only higher rates of salmonella in free-range pigs (54 percent versus 39 percent) but also greater levels of the pathogen toxoplasma (6.8 percent versus 1.1 percent) and, most alarming, two free-range pigs that carried the parasite trichina (as opposed to zero for confined pigs). For many years, the pork industry has been assuring cooks that a little pink in the pork is fine. Trichinosis, which can be deadly, was assumed to be history.
Agricultural scientists have long known that even meticulously managed free-range environments subject farm animals to a spectrum of infection. This study, though, brings us closer to a more concrete idea of why the free-range option can pose a heightened health threat to consumers. Just a little time outdoors increases pigs’ interaction with rats and other wildlife and even with domesticated cats, which can carry transmittable diseases, as well as contact with moist soil, where pathogens find an environment conducive to growth. The natural dangers that motivated farmers to bring animals into tightly controlled settings in the first place haven’t gone away.
This news is especially troubling for connoisseurs of fine pork. Pork lovers, supporters of sustainable meat and slow-food advocates have long praised the superior taste of the free-range option. According to the Web site of Legacy Manor, a Maryland farm that raises free-range pigs, it is “the way food used to taste.” Given such superlative enthusiasm, it’s worth wondering how this latest development will play out among the culinary tastemakers.
It may be objectively true that animals living in a state of nature produce sweeter meat. There are hunters in East Texas who track wild hogs, slice off their testicles so the beasts will fatten and lose their gamy taste and then shoot them months later. These gentlemen swear by the superior flavor. Don’t count on me to challenge the taste assessments of people who thrive on such blood sport. If they say it’s better, it’s better.
But most foodies aren’t going to hunt wild hogs in East Texas. Instead, they look to free-range pork as a more civilized step toward wildness and, by implication, a more “natural” taste. But here’s the catch: 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. A free-range system is engineered in part to achieve a producer’s market-driven goal: protecting his squealing investments from nature’s most obvious threats while allowing them a modicum of muscle-enhancing movement. Pigs lucky enough to land in this verdant playpen are endowed by the hand of man less with survival skills than with the ability to generate flesh retailing for $12 a pound.
Free range is ultimately an arbitrary point between the wild and the domesticated. That this arbitrary point is tricky business should come as no surprise. The long history of animal husbandry has been a fervent quest toward intensified control. Free-range pork boldly countered this quest, throwing it into partial reverse. The problem was that it went far enough to expose animals to diseases but not far enough to render the flesh truly wild. What people taste when they eat free range is a result not so much of nature but of human decision.
Even if the texture conferred on pork by this choice does lead to improved tenderloin, the enhanced taste must be weighed against the increased health risks. If we have learned anything from our sustained critique of industrial agriculture, it is that eating well should not require making such calculations.
Let’s not forget that animal domestication has not been only about profit. It’s also been about making meat more reliably available, safer to eat and consistently flavored. The critique of conventional animal farming that pervades food discussions today is right on the mark. But it should acknowledge that raising animals indoors, fighting their diseases with medicine and feeding them a carefully monitored diet have long been basic tenets of animal husbandry that allowed a lot more people to eat a lot more pork without getting sick.
The fact that we’ve lost our way and found ourselves locked in the mess of factory farming, should not deter us from realizing that — if we genuinely hope to produce pork that’s safe and tasty — instead of setting the animal world partly free, we might have to take greater control of it. Do not underestimate the importance of this challenge. After all, if clean and humane methods of production cannot be developed, there’s only one ethical choice left for the conscientious consumer: a pork-free diet.
James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of the forthcoming “Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.”
An Op-Ed article last Friday, about pork, neglected to disclose the source of the financing for a study finding that free-range pigs were more likely than confined pigs to test positive for exposure to certain pathogens. The study was financed by the National Pork Board.
Last Friday, an op-ed hit the pages of the New York Times written by James McWilliams ("Free Range Trichinosis") purporting that free-range pork was more likely to be contaminated with the deadly parasite trichonosis than its industrially sardined and antibiotic-overdosed cousin. The writer chose to take this information from a single study funded by the National Pork Board, a lobbying group for industrial pork operations, and neglected to mention that the the two free-range pigs (out of 600) had tested positive for antibodies of trichinosis, not specifically the disease itself.
The food policy wonks leaped, quickly exposing the holes in McWilliams' alarmist piece. (My two-cents is here) It seemed that leaving out the important details above left the author without a leg to stand on, yet The Atlantic was quick to give McWilliams a platform. He weakly defended his position, calling the National Pork Board funding matter a distraction, and half-heartedly admitted that he may have been wrong to leave out the details of seropositivity. His limp-wristed retort included an admission that he was in fact a sustainable food supporter, playing devil's advocate.
The only problem is, as McWilliams admits, this was a piece for lay readers, who without further information, could stop buying sustainable pork after reading such claims (and they won't just be going vegetarian, as the author might have hoped).
Its worth congratulating the food writers who gave a retort to this piece, and it speaks to an important fact McWilliams seems not to have gotten: established sustainable food advocates and newbies alike can handle transparency.
This got me thinking about what a more considered and productive devil's advocate would have done in this situation. Instead of seeking only to shock the public with misleading information, a more nuanced critique (I'll admit, it might not have made it into the Times, but thats another matter) could have presented the possibility that free-range pork is not all it's cracked up to be, and balanced out this one-sided slam.
The root of the story, and the one I'd like to understand better, is the role of antibiotics in pig husbandry, and by extension, whether antibiotics are necessary or positive in any way. An honest contrarian would have also disclosed the role of other serious pathogens like MRSA, which have been found in industrial pig operations where antibiotics are being used liberally to fatten up pigs. This would have served to give a better picture of hog confinement in general -- otherwise, McWilliams is only hurting the cause he claims to care about.
A well-rounded critique of the work sustainable food advocates are doing in all arenas is a fair one worth considering. Unfortunately in misleading the general public, and laying the contrarianism on thick, McWilliams didn't start a conversation, but instead just threw a rotten tomato.
The issues our food system faces are very serious, and one thing we can safely say is that industrial-scale animal operations have seen their day in the sun. Consumers are becoming more conscious of the treatment of the animals they eat, and from a food safety perspective, we can pretty confidently say that industrially raised meat is less safe. (Fortunately, there is more than one study to back this up). That being said, we have a lot of work to do, and everything we do will not be perfect.
Unfortunately, it seems that McWilliams has fallen prey to the wiles of marketing. In seeking to market himself as a contrarian, McWilliams has even penned a book called Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. Now honestly, did he pick out that title to scare the trichonosis out of people, or what? If he were a true sustainable food advocate, perhaps he would have written a book titled, A Closer Look at Locavorism: What's Not Working and How We Can Fix It. I might have been more excited to read that.