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April 12, 2009

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Neuse River News

such as they huge variability in outdoor productions systems. As a pastured-pig farmer myself, I have seen the extremes in outdoor production systems, from bare dirt lots to pristine, rotationally-grazed pastures. You can’t draw any conclusions from a scientifically flawed study, especially one funded by the National Pork Board.


great post by the ways

adam

Rebecca,
a friend just sent me this article from Slate. What's your take on the ringing, castration, and spaying practices mentioned? Should people be raising pigs in areas senstivie to their existence?
"Hog Heaven?"
http://www.slate.com/id/2221754/
Thanks,
adam

Rebecca T. of HonestMeat

Adam and Sasha-

I suppose mentioning the university where Mr. McWilliams resides is unnecessary, nor does his discipline really matter. But I do think the article he wrote shows some serious naivety and lack of research into what it means to have a disease versus what it means to possess antibodies. I also think his journalistic effort to hide the fact that the study was paid for by the National Pork Board also illustrates that he had an intended affect for his piece and to mention the Pork Board would have been inconvenient. In this regard, you all are right. He is a good writer and a persuasive one at that, if you don't look past the surface. The point of my article was to encourage folks to look pass that superficial surface....

adam

I have to agree with Sasha. I too was really taken aback by the ad hominem attack on the author of the NYT's piece.

Besides ad hominem being 1) a logical fallacy, 2) the University one resides at, especially early in one's career, says little about their credentials--the fact they have a job at a university says a lot of great things about their credentials, actually. In addition, the 3) criticism of his credentials because he does not have a strict background in agricultural research borders between naivety and pretentiousness. Interdisciplinary is very common in the humanities these days. In fact, most of the "Honest Books" you list are not written by agriculturists/ecologists. Often those from outside the strict/vague disciplinary boundaries of the ("hard") sciences have more holistic and nuanced understandings.

So while the author may have picked a poorly researched and funded study to "prove" his point, I'm interested in reading his overall project before I dismiss it as an "agenda" (as if the food movements don't also have an "agenda").

Rebecca T. of HonestMeat

JBL- Ecology is not science? I guess all the chemistry, botany, statistics, calculus, genetics, soil science, research methods, field course, etc. that result in an ecology degree aren't science either. I guess there is no true science then, according to your logic.
I attended two of the highest (both top 5 for their category) ranked ag and natural-resource schools in the country, actually....

JBL

Ecology is as much a science as is Theology. BTW...which Ivy League school did you attend?

Barb

Excellent post. Humane practices are so important.

Rebecca T. of HonestMeat

Here is my letter to the editor I sent to the Times on Monday, April 13th. I don't if they will print it, but if they did, here is what it would have said:

“The study that Mr. McWilliams references in his April 10th Op-Ed, found in the April 2008 edition of the journal “Foodborne Pathogens & Disease” compared only the presence of antibodies, not actual infection rates, from over 600 pigs in two production systems- intensive, confinement with regular use of antimicrobial drugs and extensive, outdoor without the use of antimicrobials. As a preliminary scientific study, the authors did not go into details about their methodology nor how they controlled for confounding factors, such as they huge variability in outdoor productions systems. As a pastured-pig farmer myself, I have seen the extremes in outdoor production systems, from bare dirt lots to pristine, rotationally-grazed pastures. You can’t draw any conclusions from a scientifically flawed study, especially one funded by the National Pork Board. What would you expect from an industry group whose sole purpose is to defend the sanctity of industrial pig production?”

claudia (cook eat FRET)

thanks for this great post. i hope the ny times responds although i suppose this would be doubtful. i do hope you wrote to them directly.

Tana Butler

IMPORTANT NOTE: Read the Editor's Note at the NY Times article itself:

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.

Well, well, well. Rebecca: bring this to light, please, in a new blog post.

I know those Pork Board folks. They're not ethical, are they?

Bob T

With regard to the high retail cost of pastured meat one should note that the small producer has to pay much more for processing than a large industrial scale enterprise. Raising meat on pasture is comparatively low-input in terms of feed cost, labor, veterinary care, etc. as well as social and environmental costs. It is governmental bureaucratic regulations of a one-size-fits-all nature that drives up the costs of processing to the small producer. No need to blame the farmers or even the yuppies.

Fortunately, when asked why pastured meat costs so much, the farmer can say, "Because it's worth it." And it is.

Sasha Cuerda

Rebecca, I guess I'll just repeat my point that arguing that scientists are the only one's qualified to think about and write about science is a very slippery rhetorical slope. Just look what someone like Michael Pollan has been able to do for people's awareness and willingness to think about food in different ways...he makes a number of points based on science and yet he is far from a trained scientists and his only agricultural experience comes as a long term gardener. Perhaps my sensitivity here comes from the fact that I am a graduate student in a "soft" science (Geography) but my reaction comes more from my concern that you create a certain hierarchy of science without recognizing how compromised most science (and most reporting of it) is. I mean compromised in the sense that funding always shapes research, institutional structure always shapes research. Just take a look at the type of ag. research coming out of the big R1 universities (I'm at one, btw). It certainly doesn't suggest that scientists are doing research in hermetically sealed boxes isolated from the myriad politics of the university-cum-corporation that is higher ed these days...And again, I'll just say that questioning McWilliams' credentials just reveals that you're not very aware of the realities of the the higher education job market these days. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins which is a top 5 program any way you cut it and the oldest history program in the country so he is clearly no hack.

If you read McWilliams' previous post the Freakanomic section he is clearly not against local food per se. Instead he points out, in his words, some "inconvenient facts" about localized food production, specifically that some regions aren't particularly suited for local food production; his example being Phoenix. I would add that a place like Phoenix is not particularly suited for people to live in period, but that's another argument all together.

I think more importantly McWilliams points out some issues that MANY very progressive academics have been suggesting, which is that the local food and "alternative" food movement isn't some sort of utopia. It's got a number of thorny problems. Does that mean we should give up and bow down to the alter of GM-food...nope. But it does mean that rather than running around yelling about how great and enlightened we are we should be a bit more humble about what we are doing. Again, I'll point out that one of the biggest issues that many many local food advocates seem to be unwilling to tackle in any substantial way is that access is so very uneven. The argument that the high cost is the real cost is precisely what the Ethicurian article addressed so I won't repeat it, but the broader issue is that we have a gap where local food tends to be expensive either at the point of purchase or at the point of preparation. Meat is perhaps the most egregious of all local food items in this respect. Right now the local food movement is a decidedly bourgeois and at least in terms of consumers, overwhelmingly yuppified. So I think we have a lot of categories here that we need to start thinking about and questioning and we can either get defensive and dogmatic about McWilliams, or use him as a foil to ask the questions that will make this a stronger and more cohesive movement.

Anyway, at this point I'm making my own argument so I'll stop and just say that perhaps a historical perspective might help us in the food movement develop better processes both from a social justice perspective and from an ecological perspective. If we are really so naive as to think that we've figured this whole thing out I think we're in big trouble. This tone of so many of the reactions to this article across the web have taken a tone of self-satisfied moralizing that it makes me really fear that we've all just drank the kool-aid.

I haven't addressed this yet, but isn't one of his points that perhaps not eating pork is the most ethical thing we could do? I really can hardly imagine a shill for the pork industry being able to make that argument.

Rebecca T. of HonestMeat

Sasha- I don't think I am being malicious by stating the fact that Mr. McWilliams is a history prof. from a rather obscure university in Texas. If you look at his bio and CV, there is no training in the sciences on it nor practical or academic experience in agriculture. Therefore, I find it hard to believe that the NY Times would give him a coveted Op-Ed space for an article that contains all kinds of inaccuracies. His article is so one-sided, he fails to mention the growing threat of antibiotic- resistant pathogens in the confinement pig industry, which I believe is much more of a threat to human health than a few outdoor raised pigs containing antibodies. As you mention, the presence of antibodies is actually a good thing. It seems to me that Mr. McWilliams has more of an agenda to discredit alternative production systems and regional food economies, as apparently his next book is going to be about. I have no qualms about questioning his expertise in the sciences and agriculture.

Sasha Cuerda

Ok, to start off I will say that I too am dismayed at the potential conflict of interest that the NYTimes obviously didn't consider or acknowledge in an ethical way. Also, I very much am NOT a supporter of CAFO style production. I like my pasture raised meat and am generally confident that in both the long and short run it is healthier and safer for me.

However I want to raise a few concerns both about the tone of your argument and some of slippages that I think are very problematic in terms of trying to understand what is going on.

First, it is completely unnecessary to attack the author because he is a professor at some "no name" university. To suggest that institutional affiliation is a prerequisite to be considering knowledgeable about something is not only insulting, but also completely fails to account for the complex realities both of academia and what counts for currency in the profession of being a researcher but also the reality of the author. Such ad hominem attacks just introduce an element of maliciousness into an otherwise fairly well argued post. Just as an aside, Prof. McWilliams is a fellow at the Yale Agrarian Studies programs, which is not only a prestigious site of research, but also not particularly known for being beholden to big corporate interests. So perhaps we should be a bit less accusatory or suspicious and take a measured step back to think about what is going on here...

In terms of your argument I just want to point out a few points. First, McWilliams is entirely correct that concern about disease has and is a major concern for pork producers. A cursory examination of the major pork trade publications over the last 50 years attest to the incredible persistence of infectious disease within livestock production and the very significant toll both on animals and people that has resulted. Richard Horowitz does a really good job of tracing this tale in his book Hog Ties which I highly recommend. I would argue that in large part the move to confine hogs should be thought of as resulting both from the political economy of agriculture (i.e. the monetary success of the vertical integration of the chicken industry but also the very real advantages for large producers) but also as a result of the difficulties and challenges of dealing with animal disease.

Confinement allowed for easier treatment and containment. Of course, you are entirely right that containment has now produced an entirely different set of problems. In many ways, containment has reproduced many of the original problems, but in a form that is much more difficult (and costly) to deal with.

In terms of the actual terms of the research being discussed, you make some very good points about the reductionist way in which the "science" is being presented. Again, one of the interesting things one notices reading trade publications is how producers tout the "high-health" of their herds. High-health essentially means low exposure and thus high susceptibility. In other words, the animals are healthy because they haven't been exposed to anything, but they're health is so dependent upon medication that they have very low immunity. Seropositive status is an indicator of exposure as you point out, and in fact is generally GOOD. It means that the animal has been exposed, survived, and is thus likely to be better able to fend off future exposure. McWilliams glosses over this completely and he should be called out for it.

So where does that leave us in terms of thinking about how to respond to this article. For one, maybe there is an element of truth to it. After all, as you point out, there is a wide range of practices being used by non-CAFO pork producers, not all of whom are as rigorous as you in taking steps to reduce or mitigate exposure. Second we do have to take seriously the issue of affordability that lies beneath the surface here. The $12/lb. issue NEEDS to be addressed and thought about. We absolutely need to recognize that falling back on easy categories or terms which supposedly represent stable categories (local, sustainable, etc.) is not in our best interest long term. The us versus them attitudes only polarize and exclude leading to moralizing which while well meaning easily slips into authoritarian proclamation and dismissively judgmental advice. We do need "better" science about the relationship between management systems and animal/human disease and well being. Just like we need better science about what is really brewing in the CAFOs.

Rebecca T. of HonestMeat

Alright- I just submitted a 150 word long letter to the editor of the Times based on an extremely condensed version of my blog post. We shall see if they publish it. Here is what I said:

The study that Mr. McWilliams references in his April 10th Op-Ed, found in the April 2008 edition of the journal “Foodborne Pathogens & Disease” compared only the presence of antibodies, not actual infection rates, from over 600 pigs in two production systems- intensive, confinement with regular use of antimicrobial drugs and extensive, outdoor without the use of antimicrobials. As a preliminary scientific study, the authors did not go into details about their methodology nor how they controlled for confounding factors, such as they huge variability in outdoor productions systems. As a pastured-pig farmer myself, I have seen the extremes in outdoor production systems, from bare dirt lots to pristine, rotationally-grazed pastures. You can’t draw any conclusions from a scientifically flawed study, especially one funded by the National Pork Board. What would you expect from an industry group whose sole purpose is to defend the sanctity of industrial pig production?

Susan

Excellent and thoughtful commentary.
Susan Schneider
http://aglaw.blogspot.com

E Kopras

Excellent science-based rebuttal. Too bad we won't read it in the NYT.

Luisa

Eep! My link didn't go through. Read what Marion Nestle had to say at the Atlantic Food Channel here:
http://food.theatlantic.com/nutrition/sponsored-science-strikes-again.php

Anna

When I read "between the lines" of just about any NYT piece on animal food production, I see "vegetarian agenda" written very distinctly.

adam

Rebecca,
Thanks for the thoughtful post. I was just about to send you the article and ask for your response. For the most part, I think your responses are valid.

In light of our previous correspondence, though, I tought the following quote might still pose a challenge to your outlook and value of "the natural."
___"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."

Luisa

Excellent post [also: great blog]. Marion Nestle posted some interesting comments here.

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