Saturday, April 11, 2009

Don't Eat That Pork: Trichy Words From The Prof

The New York Times featured an Op-Ed entitled "Free-Range Trichinosis" from a history professor in Austin, Texas, James E. McWilliams. I initially found this article hard to respond to because I felt the author said a lot without saying anything at all. The more I considered it, the more I understood his real message and the need to blunt the impact of his words.

The author's intended take-away is clear: Free-range pork will make you sick. The science proves it.

Marion Nestle, a well-known expert on nutrition and food politics doyenne, quickly shot down this conclusion with two simple observations that call into question the author's objectivity. See below for details or this nice post over on CivilEats.

Unfortunately, Ms. Nestle's response is not likely to be given equal air time as that given to Mr. McWilliams. Further, she does not address several other things that McWilliams says directly or indirectly with which I take issue.

Issue #1: McWilliams impugns the integrity of those raising and promoting pork from free-range pigs. Indeed, he insinuates that they are disingenuous hacks because the pigs they promote aren't really free range, anyways.

Here McWilliams takes advantage of the fact that there is no single definition of the words "free range." He has a potentially valid point: the only truly "natural" pork would be that from pigs found, and killed, in the wild. He correctly notes that the pork most food connoisseurs and sustainability advocates promote is ... "ultimately an arbitrary point between the wild and the domesticated."

Yet he goes on to cynically say that "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... [so he can] generate flesh retailing for $12 a pound."

What makes a farmer who designs his or her husbandry program to allow pigs to move around outdoors and socialize with other pigs and even root for their own food on occasion any more calculating than the one who chooses to raise his pigs "indoors, fighting their diseases with medicine and feeding them a carefully monitored diet"?

Further, why is the farmer who charges $12 per pound any less virtuous than one who sells her pork for less?

No doubt that there are hacks out there who take advantage of ill-defined claims such as "natural" or "heart heathy" or "free range" in an attempt to snooker the consumer into paying more, perhaps even $12 per pound. In fact, one needn't look any further than one's own cupboard to find dozens of examples of specious claims.

But perhaps that farmer whose pork commands $12 per pound is providing full transparency into her husbandry practices or is loved by her customers or both. Heck, maybe she's even selling better tasting pork.

Further, if this producer selling her pork at a premium price is ultimately found to be taking advantage of her customers by selling them a bill of goods (remember White Marble Farms "all natural" pork?) she will no longer be able to charge $12 per pound because her customers will abandon her.

The truth of the matter is that there is no single "best" set of protocols for raising clean, tasty food. In my opinion, it is also impossible to create a single definition or marketing claim that perfectly encapsulates best practices. Gray areas will always exist and best practices is in the eyes of the beholder.

So rather than do as Mr. McWilliams has done and call one group of farmers fakes, let's encourage all producers - individual farmers, co-ops, or brands - to open their protocols to public scrutiny and let us customers vote with our pocketbooks as to whom to support.

Issue #2. The author also impugns those of us who are actively seeking an alternative to CAFO raised pork.

Mr. McWilliams seems particularly put off by the idea that people should want their food to actually taste good. "Pork lovers, supporters of sustainable meat and slow-food advocates have long praised the superior taste of the free-range option," he writes. But he then follows this with the suggestion that, because free-range pork isn't really natural, "neither is its taste." Ergo, the real reason these people want free-range pork is because they "despise industrial agriculture and adore the idea of wildness."

Sir, there may be some who seek outdoor-raised pork for sentimental, ethical, or similar reasons other than taste and texture. What's wrong with that?

Issue #3. The author suggests that if we continue to promote and eat free-range pork then we are unethical.

Since Mr. McWilliams argues that the only way to create pork that doesn't make you sick is to raise pigs indoors, he challenges those of us seeking tastier meat to look for better indoor solutions. Unless we accept this, he says, "there’s only one ethical choice left for the conscientious consumer: a pork-free diet."

Here I think Mr. McWilliams could have a fair point. It makes intuitive sense that eating genuinely wild pork (or game or whatever) carries a higher risk than eating meat raised under the watchful eye of a talented, ethical farmer.

If eating pigs raised in any outdoor conditions is ever proven to in fact dramatically increase the probability of contracting food borne illnesses, and the individual consumer cannot take reasonable measures to mitigate this risk,* then perhaps we should remove pork from our diets completely.

But then let's take that to the logical end. Note that Mr. McWilliams does not argue that CAFO-raised pork is free of bacteria that can make us ill. He simply says that science "proves" that outdoor raised pigs have a higher incidence (remember, he's done nothing to prove this). Unless we kill off all possible sources of contamination (from insects to housecats, or frankly, all animal life) or somehow sterilize all that we eat, it seems that all foods, whether plant or animal, carry a risk of making one ill.

We can't very well stop eating altogether. I ask what can we do? One key is transparency and education - let's open the books and let consumers decide which purveyors to support and why. And let's not let articles like this go unanswered.

The other thing we can do is to put the food back in meat! Countless hours and words are used every day talking about who's husbandry or land management protocols are the best, whether to use microbials or not, if organic is good or not.

Let's start rewarding people for making really clean but also really great tasting food. As long we agree to a minimum set of standards and let those who exceed them advertise themselves as such, let's celebrate the differences in flavors and textures across the breeds or varieties, seasons and growing regions. Let's remove the many layers between farm and fork so that consumers can give feedback to the producer and create a continuous improvement feedback loop.
Let's take this conversation to a new level and out of the weeds.

There are a lot of very smart, thoughtful people out there trying to figure out how to give people access to cleaner, more humanely raised, tastier food. I'd love to hear what you would suggest, too.

ps New York Times, I realize this was an Op-Ed piece but you could have balanced this piece with someone offering a different perspective. Better yet, you might have turned to someone like Andrew Martin to provide some scrutiny here.

* Such as cooking the heck out of it like we're forced to do with commodity ground beef because the processors can't be bothered to take measures to prevent contamination.
Here in short is Marion Nestle's response to Mr. McWilliams with regard to the validity to his claims on the "science" front. I've added it here at the bottom as many others have addressed this point and quite well. I instead wanted to chip in my two cents above, my personal reaction to the article as a whole.
Mr. McWilliams writes that "scientists have found that free-range pork can be more likely than caged pork to carry dangerous bacteria and parasites" including "higher rates of salmonella and... the parasite trichina."
Nestle notes that the study cited by Mr. McWilliams measured the presence of antibodies to certain diseases in the pigs' blood, not the presence of disease in the meat. In other words, the free range pigs in the study were exposed to organisms and developed immunity to them. The indoor raised pigs were not similarly exposed and thus did not develop a similar immunity.
Nestle goes on to ask why Mr. McWilliams did not clarify this point and answers her own question by pointing out that the study itself was paid for in the first place by The National Pork Board. "Sponsored studies are invariably designed in ways that produce favorable results for the sponsor."


Peter M said...

Hmmm, if one follows the logic that free-range is inferior to farm-reared animals...can the same be applied to fish and seafood? Shall I only seek farm-raised fish, shrimp and mussels?

I think not. We all make decisions that vary from day to day...mood, budget, availability.

Too many are quick to jump on any "organic", "free-range" or any green initiative.

I think each should make an effort to put better food on the family table.

Baby steps (you heard that from me before).

galynn said...

#1) Biblical food taboos address the unknown peril that is now identified and controlled as trichinosis. Education, not prohibition is the answer.

2) Here in TX we have the ultimate in free range; feral hogs. These require special preparation and are enjoyed by many in the rural areas.

3) One of the largest hog producers in TX is the Dept. of Criminal Justice. They produce pork via factory farm and it is truly flavor free. It is a mystery how they take good food and turn it into tasteless pap.

Education and tolerance, not misinformation and arrogance is in the best interest of everyone.

Carrie Oliver said...

Peter M, I think you're right on about jumping too quickly on labels e.g. "organic" or "green." Our brains seem wired to seek shortcuts and these issues are very complicated. Sadly, some take advantage of the inevitable "gray areas" that exist by definition once a claim has been defined. This hurts us all, especially those earnestly trying to do the right thing and make thoughtful choices.

As you know, I also feel there is no single "right" or "perfect" standard for humane treatment, sustainability, "natural" etc. The more we can bring transparency to consumers and to help each other understand what the information means, the better.

Finally, what I also love about your comment and your blog is that you are helping people make an effort to put better food on the family table. Baby steps is a great way to put it.

Carrie Oliver said...

galynn, Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment, too! I've enjoyed talking with you on Twitter.

Funny, McWilliams specifically refers to hunting feral hogs in Texas as being genuinely free-range. No matter, I would certainly expect the flavor and texture to be quite random.

I had no idea that the Texas Dept. of Criminal justice had it's own confined pig farm. There is a bit of irony in that. Thanks for helping educate us all on that one.