[Sca-cooks] Pork still might kill you

Johnna Holloway johnnae at mac.com
Thu Apr 30 07:10:03 PDT 2009

We did beef cuts on Wednesday and the article that tried to
point out that by eating pork, you won't catch the new flu, but
we missed this one:.
Here's a NYT OP-Ed piece from earlier in the month on how free range 
pork might kill you.


Op-Ed Contributor
  Free-Range Trichinosis 

Published: April 9, 2009

Editors' Note Appended

Austin, Tex.

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.”

Editors' Note: April 14, 2009
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.

Related Health Guide: Trichinosis 

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