In an op-ed published on April 9, 2009 in the New York Times, entitled “Free Range Trichinosis” , James McWilliams argues that free-range pork is more likely than conventionally farmed pork to carry diseases and parasites such as salmonella, toxoplasma and trichina. Additionally, he argues that confinement farming is based on tenets of animal husbandry; that is, that raising animals indoors, fighting their diseases with medicine and feeding them carefully monitored diets produces meat that is “more reliably available, safer to eat and consistently flavored”. He concludes that we “should not be deterred from realizing that…instead of setting the animal partially free, we might have to take greater control of it”.
However, McWilliams’ piece is misleading at best and false at worst. While he is correct in noting that there are higher incidences of salmonella, toxoplasma and trichinosis in free-range pigs, he glosses over the dangers of methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in confinement-raised pork. Additionally, he plays the “responsible animal husbandry” card, asserting that modern pork farming has given us more reliable sources of cheaper meat with more consistent flavor by “raising animals indoors, fighting their diseases with medicine and feeding them a carefully monitored diet”. He glosses over the worst aspects of factory farming, instead referring to a utopian confinement farming system that does not exist in this country.
McWilliams’ first piece of evidence that free-range pork is more dangerous is a piece from the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. The article studied 600 pigs in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin and found increased levels of salmonella, toxoplasma and trichina. While I could not find the article he mentions, I do not choose to dispute these findings; I will accept that free-range pigs are exposed to more vectors and therefore may have higher incidences of parasites or bacteria. However, this evidence is immaterial for two reasons. The first is that both types of pigs carry these pathogens: really, there is a 50% chance that a free-range pig has salmonella versus a 40% chance a confinement-raised pig has the same pathogen. In either case, the exposure risk to salmonella is large-if the person hasn’t used appropriate food handling procedures! For both types, the pork must be cooked and cross-contamination limited- as all food should be. Secondly, the three pathogens he mentions are not particularly hazardous. Sure, it is unpleasant to get salmonella (which causes some decidedly unpleasant symptoms for 4-7 days) or trichinosis (which causes you to feel decidedly anti-social for 4-6 months). However, in both of these cases proper food handling procedures reduce the risk to negligible levels. In the case of trichinosis, the danger is far more real if you are handling game. The Center for Disease control reports that from 1997-2001, there were only 12 cases per year of trichinosis, and that “it was less commonly associated with pork products and more often associated with eating raw or undercooked game meats” (1). And as for toxoplasma? You are more likely to get that by cleaning your cats litter box and failing to wash your hands than from a pork chop. Therefore, this claim is dismissible due to the prevalence of these pathogens in both types of pork, as well as the relative harmlessness of the threats they present.
However, what McWilliams does not discuss is the prevalence of MRSA in confinement-farmed pigs. Nicholas Kristof, in two superb pieces in the Times entitled “Pathogens in Our Pork” and “Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health” exposes the danger and prevalence of MRSA in confinement-farmed pork. The reason MRSA is so scary is that- as its name suggests- it is resistant to the primary types of antibiotics we use in our hospitals. This resistance is largely due to irresponsible use of antibiotics in pig feed (which I will discuss later). In the US, 18,000 people per year are killed by MRSA. Now, they were not infected through pork consumption (and indeed, the link between eating pork and getting MRSA has not been proven), but the prevalence of a unique strain of MRSA (called ST398) that appears solely on confinement pork farms is growing. In addition, confinement-raised pork is more likely to have other bacteria, like salmonella, that are antibiotic resistant.
In his article, Kristof relates the anecdote of townspeople in Camden, Indiana contracting “pimples from hell”, which turned into lesions “as big as saucers”. Tom Anderson, a doctor in the community, sent cultures off to the lab that identified the culprit as MRSA. Before Kristof could interview the doctor in person, Anderson died of a heart attack-possibly caused by MRSA. The prevalence of this ST398 is growing. A University of Iowa epidemiologist found 45% of farmers tested (and 49% of hogs) carried this strain of MRSA.
So if free-range pork has more salmonella, it must have more MRSA, right? Wrong. In an article entitled “Antimicrobial Susceptibility of Foodborne Pathogens in Organic or Natural Productions Systems”, the authors examine the antibiotic resistance of multiple types of pathogens in conventional versus organic or natural production systems. Now, free-range, while not necessarily organic, oftentimes is, and free-range pork rarely receives antibiotics du jour, as conventional pork does. Therefore, I will conclude that the results are, for the most part, applicable. In the study, the authors find a statistically significant difference between conventional and free-range pork: prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria (including E. Coli, salmonella and campylobacter) was much lower in free-range pork- oftentimes stunningly so. The author concludes that, while “the associations were not always observed, they were rarely reversed”.
This leads into my final rebuttal against McWilliams’ article: that raising animals indoors, fighting their diseases with medicine and feeding them a carefully monitored diet is a good thing, because it makes pork more reliably available, safer to eat and consistently flavored. I have 2 main arguments against this. Firstly, those methods are rarely followed by big “factory farm” producers, and secondly, that the “benefits” of such farming are actually positive. He preempts my argument by stating that “the critique of conventional animal farming is right on the mark”; however, he is being disingenuous through the rest of the article when he fights against free-range pork farmers and fails to mention the atrocities of factory farms.
As the ever-formidable Kristof notes, 70% of all antibiotics go to animal feed for healthy livestock- causing this explosion in resistant strains of bacteria. Legislation to block the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in feed has been blocked by agribusiness interests. Now, as I mentioned, free-range pork could still technically add antibiotics to feed. However, free-range pork is often organic, which means they cannot. In addition, even non-organic farmers, such as Iowa Farm Families, will not sell pork that has been given antibiotics under their label; pigs that are treated are noted and sold under a different brand. Generally, free-range farmers are more responsible than their more monopolistic brethren, and forgo the use of antibiotics. Therefore, I feel confident linking the superior safety of organic foods to free-range pork as well.
Finally, the benefits of this system (more reliable supply of consistently flavored and cheap pork) are not really benefits. You know what else is consistent and cheap? McDonalds. This is a normative statement, but I like my pork to be meaty, with a unique flavor, and even a little unusual. It’s true! While the benefits of more unique heirloom and free-range pork varieties, while existent, are beyond the scope of this article, I would direct you to an excellent Times article on the same topic.
In conclusion, McWilliams’ article misses the point. He over exaggerates the dangers of diseases that are easily prevented and treated, and ignores the dangers of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria such as MRSA, E. Coli and salmonella which are not. Additionally, he cites the “more is better” argument: that we shouldn’t complain that we can now get more pork more cheaply. I think we need to return to a time where we didn’t spend so indiscriminately, and took quality over quantity.