Today is Easter and I imagine a lot of people in the Christian world are eating pork today, probably in the form of ham. So, if you are eating ham or perhaps favor some other form of piggy goodness, which of the above pictures did that pig come from? The one on the left, where it spent its short five months of life living in crowded pens with slatted floors, where the stench of manure, the heat, and the high-pitched screeching noise is a fact of its miserable life? Where the tails are cut off and the eye teeth removed so they can't nibble as effectively on each others behinds, since there is nothing else to do to occupy their days. The pigs are pumped full of antimicrobials (antibiotics and other drugs) in their feed to prevent disease and enhance growth. The flavor of the pork from these animals is a cross between dry cardboard and texturized vegetable protein. But hey- at least they are lean, right? Isn't that what Americans 'need' (but probably don't want)?
Or did your ham come from the picture on the right (one of our first batches of pigs) who started out their life bred for leanness and confinement production, but were brought to our farm as wieners and encountered a completely different way of life. They were raised for six or seven months to a hearty size of 300-350 pounds live weight. They were fatty and the meat was marbled, even though they got copious quantities of exercise (which you couldn't tell by the lazy nature of their afternoon dozing in this picture, tired from all the rooting and munching they were doing). They never got sick, and never got antibiotics. They were moved frequently to new pastures to keep their parasite loads down, and their livers were the picture of health after slaughter, which is a sign of low parasite pressure. As one would expect, we get rave reviews for the taste of our pork (just see some of the Local Harvest reviews as proof). Now tell me, which ham do you prefer?
So along comes a short, preliminary study in the Journal of Foodborne Pathogens & Disease in April, 2008 and a history professor from the prestigious* Texas State University who gets a Op-Ed in the NY Times to proclaim that pigs raised outdoors are a ticking time-bomb, full of potential pathogens waiting to destroy the foodies clamoring to eat it. First off, as an ecologist and agriculturist, I wonder, what does a history professor from a no-name school in Texas have to say about a scientific study in agriculture? How does one get an Op-Ed in the NY Times without any expertise? Mmm...I must dig deeper.
Starting with Mr. McWilliams Op-Ed, I shall pick apart his article, paragraph by paragraph. He starts by painting a picture of 500 lb. pigs rooting away in bliss. 500 lb. pigs? What is he talking about- breeding sows? Pigs raised for meat are almost never raised to that size- they are too big to handle at most slaughter facilities. Strike one for his agricultural understanding. He talks about the three pathogens the study tested, which were Trichinella, Toxoplasma, and Salmonella. Even though the study showed that the levels of Trichina were insignificant (2 out of 324 pigs outdoor-raised pigs), Mr. McWilliams tried to portray this level of trichina as very disturbing. Statistical insignificance is no cause for alarm, but what does one expect from a gentleman without a science background? He then states, "Natural dangers that motivated farmers to bring animals into tightly controlled settings in the first place haven't gone away." The confinement of animals into CAFOs has almost nothing to do with environmental factors and has everything to do with land, labor, and capital efficiencies, grain subsidies, tax incentives, global trade, standardization of food, and so much more. But again, why would he know that?
He portrays an odd story of wild boar hunters cutting off the testicles of the boar so they taste better, and then talks about consumers who are looking for that 'wild' taste as their motivation for buying 'free-range' pork. That completely illogical arguement couldn't be further from the truth. Consumers are looking for moist, flavorful, tasty pork that is produced in a more humane way with limited exposure to antibiotics or other drugs. Why does Mr. McWilliams not talk about the growing health threats of antibiotic over-use in the pig industry, or the growing problem of MRSA or other antibiotic-resistant super-bugs? He goes on to talk about how the pig industry has moved to confinement and drugs in order to produce "consistently flavored, safer to eat pork". Is the consistency of dried-out, bland pork the one that people want? Does safer to eat for the consumers include the cancer hot-spots, fish kills, and overall misery of people that live nearby these giant hog farms?
Now the study itself is what is called in science as a "Preliminary Study". The journal article is short and does not contain a lot of references, nor does it go into detail the methodology nor results. It is surely no statement of scientific fact, and the authors end the article by stating the need for significantly more studies related to this issue to get a better understanding of what might be going on. In other words, don't draw any conclusions from this study funded by the National Pork Board. Any quality scientist knows to first look at who funds a study, prior to referencing it. Therefore, one should question what the motives of the National Pork Board are in the first place.
The title of this article is called, "Seroprevalence of Trichinella, Toxoplasma, and Salmonella in Antimicrobial-Free and Conventional Swine Production Systems", published in the April 2008 edition of the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. The four authors, all from various schools of Veterinary Medicine, compare two different systems. The first red flag for me is that in determining the two systems to compare, they did not control for confounding factors. They study compared intensive, indoor production with the use of antimicrobials to extensive, outdoor production without the use of antimicrobials. They study should have compared the following to control for confounding factors:
IIWAM- intensive, indoors with antimicrobials
IIWOAM-intensive, indoors without antimicrobials
EOWAM-extensive, outdoors with antimicrobials
EOWOAM-extensive, outdoors without antimicrobials
Do you see what I am getting at here? We do not know if the increased presence of toxoplasma and salmonella in the outdoor pigs was due to the outdoor conditions or the lack of antimicrobials. Similarly, are the indoor pigs protected from pathogens due to the living conditions or the daily feeding of antimicrobials? This distinction is huge in my eyes, as you cannot conclude that outdoor environments increase pathogen exposure. It could be the lack of antimicrobials and not the environment. Same for the indoor-raised pigs. Just see how long a pig would survive in that picture on the left above without antimicrobials. I'm almost positive that there are actually more pathogens in the cramped, warm quarters of the pig barn than there are outside.
The other huge problem with this study, of course, is the vastly varying degrees of outdoor production. Some farmers raise their pigs in outdoor dirt lots with no vegetation to help filter out and break down pathogens and excess nutrients and call it "free-range pork". Other farmers like us, plant and irrigate lush pastures that we rotate the pigs through, paying careful attention to resting the pastures long enough between pig batches so as to break up the parasite or pathogen cycles. We have no domestic cats around nor much wildlife in the pig fields since our livestock guard dog keeps nearly every other animal far away. This study mentions almost nothing about the actual management practices of the outdoor production systems they sampled, instead lumping them all together as one, homogeneous system. I would hope in future studies that these 'scientists' do a better job controlling for all of these variables, perhaps even setting up a controlled study so they can duplicate exact production systems.
Lastly, I have to get back to this question about why the NY Times published an Op-Ed by a historian from Texas with a political agenda to disparage alternative food production systems. I would hope in the future they consider publishing voices from agriculture and from science who actually know what they are talking about. Maybe people like me.....
Photo credits: Farm Sanctuary.org on left and myself on right