The New York Times carried quite an interesting op-ed piece from James McWilliams this weekend disputing the safety of pork from free-range pigs. The article is interesting and short, so I won't analyze it in detail here, but I will summarize a few of his more interesting points:
- A study was done last year to test the levels of dangerous pathogens in more than 600 anti-biotic free, free-range pigs. Levels of pathogens causing toxoplasmosis and salmonella were found to be substantially higher than in confined pigs, and 2 pigs were found to have the dangerous parasite trichina, which has been eradicated from confined pigs.
- Free-range pigs can come into contact with dangerous contaminants from which confined pigs are protected, specifically rats, cats and contaminated soil.
- Free-range does not mean wild. It is somewhere halfway between confined and wild. Since animal husbandry began, humans have been searching for ways to control meat production such that it is safe and consistent - this is not a new practice. Much of the process followed in industrial pork production is to protect against exactly the diseases identified in the study.
- While free-range may make the pork taste better, and make us feel better because the pigs are supposedly leading a more natural lifestyle, ultimately it is another form of meat production, one which disregards the dangers against which the confinement of pigs is trying to protect and which isn't really close at all to pigs natural wild state.
I found this article interesting because it calls into question my assumption that free range is always the best choice for meat. I find especially intriguing the idea that any form of meat production, as opposed to hunting meat, is industrial, no matter how PC it seems. Here are a few of the questions I was left with:
- What exactly does free-range mean for the pigs in the cited study? Like beef, I'd guess there are vastly differing environments for how free-range pigs are raised and fed. Is there a concept of pastured vs. free-range for pigs?
- When compared with free-range pigs, what issues surround confined pork production? You may remember the recent Irish pork recall due to the contamination of a small amount of pig feed. (By the way, I hope I'm never forced to eat anything called "feed." I like my food to have names. Just a thought.)
- Is any kind of pork consumption, short of meat from hunted pigs, safe to eat? Just why are there so many religious and social taboos against eating pork as opposed to other meats? Could this be an evolutionary safety mechanism?
These are interesting questions that I'd like to begin exploring. I've been steering clear of pork for a while, and until I better inform myself, I will probably continue to do so.
A few last points:
The La Vida Locavore blog carried an interesting response to this piece that claims the study referenced was funded by the National Pork Board (although I can't figure out how this was determined). The article and comments show that once again, this is a complex subject that requires detailed research on the part of any consumer striving for a complete understanding of what he or she is eating.
James McWilliams has a book coming out soon entitled Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. I can't wait, but I really hope this doesn't mean that I have to reconsider some of my opinions ;)