Digest – News: Perilous pork, the First Lettuce, food safety plateaus

Free-range throwdown: A New York Times op-ed turns the food-fear spotlight on pastured pork, covering a study that finds that "free-range pork can be more likely than caged pork to carry dangerous bacteria and parasites" including potentially-deadly Trichinosis. The author gets in a few more digs with the good-food community by challenging whether free-range husbandry - and the taste of the meat that results - can fairly be called "natural." (New York Times; thanks, Jack!) (See blogs digest for responses)

No Monticello required: Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack (with the help of DC elementary school students) break ground on the First Garden, where they plant 25 varieties of heirloom seeds, including some favored by Thomas Jefferson. It's an ideal setting for Vilsack to pitch his proposal to increase funding for fruit and veggies in school lunches via reforms to the Child Nutrition Act. (Washington Post)

Our tax dollars at work: Newsflash: Food safety isn't improving. We bet you wouldn't have guessed that in the face of the peanut butter scandal, last year's massive ground beef recalls, or the summer's tomato chili pepper incident. But now the CDC and FDA say we need to overhaul the food safety system. We say, no shigella, Sherlock! (New York Times)

Don't blame meat: Jim Hodges, an American Meat Institute exec, says the food safety system isn't so bad, and illness from meat and poultry consumption is down. (Brownfield)

Payments for carbon sequestration?: The current issue of UC's California Agriculture is devoted to looking at how climate change will transform growing in the state — unequivocally, it says. (California Agriculture)

Two heads are better than one?: An Australian researcher studying fish with developmental abnormalities follows a trail that leads to the pesticides being used on nearby macadamia nut plantations. Unlike their marine neighbors, human residents living near the farms are not growing multiple heads - but they are getting cancer, and the same pesticides are suspected to be the cause. (The Australian)

Chicken challengers: Egg and poultry producers are suing to reverse an EPA permit rule on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that will require them to apply for a permit if they have the "potential to discharge" pollutants into U.S. waters. (They argue that unless the EPA can prove they're actually polluting the water, they shouldn't be required to have a permit.) The industry is also disputing EPA guidance that says that CAFOs with ventilation fans have the potential to spew pollutants into the air, which may then fall into waterways. (Brownfield; KRVN Rural Radio).

Canadian livestock ops found to import over $100 million of unapproved antibiotics to use on their animals, put public health at risk (Globe and Mail)

Reducing sugar intake may improve our memories (Scientific American)

8 Responsesto “Digest – News: Perilous pork, the First Lettuce, food safety plateaus”

  1. The NYTimes Op-Ed (Opinion!) piece is based on fear mongering by a historian, not a scientist. I have written a response for the NYTimes and have posted another version on my blog. It is truly sad that the NYTimes lets Big Ag PR spin get through like this without any fact checking.
    (Link didn't post properly so I'm trying again.)

  2. pantagruel55 says:

    I guess with those three letters, phd, at the end of your name you are now allowed to pontificate as an expert in any field. Or is it that Colonial History is now a part of the Department of Animal Sciences or the Department of Animal Husbandry in most universities today - if so, I didn't get the memo. I won't even address the flaws in the writer's "fuzzy" logic, or his lame attempt to demonstrate his "unbiased" position with the sentence: "The critique of conventional animal farming that pervades food discussions today is right on the mark." Instead, I would question his motivation for his writing this piece and the basis of the "scientific" evidence he uses as its foundation. He seems to have taken a page out of the National Pork Board's playbook, and yes, the "scientific" study he cites was sponsered by the National Pork Board. Now, the fact that the National Pork Board is in a large part sponsered by INDUSTRIAL PORK PRODUCERS, and its director of Swine Health Information and Research was formerly the the health assurance manager for one of the largest INDUSTRIAL PORK PRODUCERS in the world, should not make us question the study or the opinion of the writer "Free-Range Trichinosis". Is he trying to inform us or just scare the fans of Michael Pollan's books into buying his own upcoming volume!!!

    n

  3. Sasha Cuerda says:

    So from my reading around at various blog responses to this I fear that we're drinking the kool aid a bit. McWilliams article is troubling as is the potential conflict of interest regarding the funding of the original research. However, the proliferation of ad hominem attacks is really troubling, especially those which focus on his "credentials" as a historian and thus his disqualification from commenting on science. Good grief, do we just want scientists to write and talk about science? Or as I've written elsewhere, do we want to create a hierarchy of science where a researcher from lowely Texas State counts less than someone from, oh, say University of Illinois? Very dangerous territory. Historians and others in the "soft" sciences have been very effective at offerring powerful critiques of science. We take for granted that we should look at where funding comes from when evaluating the quality of science, but folks, it wasn't scientists who really pointed that out...or at least not hard scientists. Also, McWilliams just recently completed a fellowship in the Yale Agrarian Studies program. As far as I know this program is NOT a subsidary of Smithfield nor funded by the Pork Checkoff. Actually, it is an institution that has produced some amazingly progressive and critical research, so I think we need to step back and think about what we gain by trying to make the argument that McWilliams isn't qualified to say what he is saying.

    Yes, McWilliams plays a bit fast and loose, but guess, what, pigs get sick. Pig disease is nasty. The pork industry is absoltely obsessed with dealing with disease (Read the trade publications, it's shocking). I'm not saying that pasture raised producers aren't attentitive to the health of their animals (that would be really silly to suggest) but I am suggesting that perhaps there are some questions we need to start asking. How can a pasture system be safe at a large enough scale to displace the 90,000,000+ hogs that make their way through the CAFO system each year? It's going to take a lot more than farmers raising 50 pigs here and there to reach that volume of meat and that could possibly bring us right back to that point in history where containment emerged...pasture raised producers unable to deal with the level of disease that accompanied the volumes of pre-CAFO production (remember, McWilliams has that really useless degree in History). I think that right now being a small niche is an advantage in terms of animal health, but I think that some really careful work needs to go into thinking about how a broader system gets constructed.

    I'm in NO way suggesting that the CAFO system is desirable in ANY way. It's not. But McWilliams suggests much the same when he says that perhaps the most ethical option. Folks have argued that the real point of local food is the social relations...well, um, does that mean we should stop caring about sick pigs...animals that are reputedly as smart as a three year old? My two year old suffers terribly when he is sick and it kills me...but should I care less because it's a pig. Those arguments just don't hold water and miss the point that a just and sustainable food system has to account for many many elements, animal health being one of them.

    Finally, I'd suggest that perhaps dealing with some of the inconvienient truths about local food is important and necessary if we are going to take the next step. The similar ad hominem attacks at Bob Curtis for his guest post here a few weeks back similarly point to the really slippery slope we are on. If we think that we've figured out this whole nature thing we are being incredibly arrogant and foolish.

  4. Sasha Cuerda says:

    Oops...I left a few words out in my first try at this post.

    So from my reading around at various blog responses to this I fear that we're drinking the kool aid a bit. McWilliams article is troubling as is the potential conflict of interest regarding the funding of the original research. However, the proliferation of ad hominem attacks is really troubling, especially those which focus on his "credentials" as a historian and thus his disqualification from commenting on science. Good grief, do we just want scientists to write and talk about science? Or as I've written elsewhere, do we want to create a hierarchy of science where a researcher from lowely Texas State counts less than someone from, oh, say University of Illinois? Very dangerous territory. Historians and others in the "soft" sciences have been very effective at offerring powerful critiques of science. We take for granted that we should look at where funding comes from when evaluating the quality of science, but folks, it wasn't scientists who really pointed that out...or at least not hard scientists. Also, McWilliams just recently completed a fellowship in the Yale Agrarian Studies program. As far as I know this program is NOT a subsidary of Smithfield nor funded by the Pork Checkoff. Actually, it is an institution that has produced some amazingly progressive and critical research, so I think we need to step back and think about what we gain by trying to make the argument that McWilliams isn't qualified to say what he is saying.

    Yes, McWilliams plays a bit fast and loose, but guess, what, pigs get sick. Pig disease is nasty. The pork industry is absoltely obsessed with dealing with disease (Read the trade publications, it's shocking). I'm not saying that pasture raised producers aren't attentitive to the health of their animals (that would be really silly to suggest) but I am suggesting that perhaps there are some questions we need to start asking. How can a pasture system be safe at a large enough scale to displace the 90,000,000+ hogs that make their way through the CAFO system each year? It's going to take a lot more than farmers raising 50 pigs here and there to reach that volume of meat and that could possibly bring us right back to that point in history where containment emerged...pasture raised producers unable to deal with the level of disease that accompanied the volumes of pre-CAFO production (remember, McWilliams has that really useless degree in History). I think that right now being a small niche is an advantage in terms of animal health, but I think that some really careful work needs to go into thinking about how a broader system gets constructed.

    I'm in NO way suggesting that the CAFO system is desirable in ANY way. It's not. But McWilliams suggests much the same when he says that perhaps the most ethical option. Folks have argued that the real point of local food is the social relations...well, um, does that mean we should stop caring about sick pigs...animals that are reputedly as smart as a three year old? My two year old suffers terribly when he is sick and it kills me...but should I care less because it's a pig. Those arguments just don't hold water and miss the point that a just and sustainable food system has to account for many many elements, animal health being one of them.

    Finally, I'd suggest that perhaps dealing with some of the inconvienient truths about local food is important and necessary if we are going to take the next step. The similar ad hominem attacks at Bob Curtis for his guest post here a few weeks back similarly point to the really slippery slope we are on. If we think that we've figured out this whole nature thing we are being incredibly arrogant and foolish.

  5. I have seen neurocysticercosis (basically the trichinella parasites take up residence in the brain) and it isn't pretty - it's actually the most common brain disease in Mexico and causes a lot of brain damage, some irreversible.  So the allegation of trichinella in the pastured pigs is a serious one.  Of course, the simple solution is to cook the meat well done, which remains the official advice for all pork products, pastured or otherwise.

    What I found interesting is that the entire opinion piece did not mention humane considerations once, except to say that pasturing pigs is not "natural."  The effective campaign for animal rights here in California this past election season educated many of us about the degree of confinement that conventional pigs are subjected to, and I feel that this was a glaring omission in the piece.

  6. pantagruel55 says:

    Having been a part of the research community - both academic and commercial - in the broadly categorized fields of Engineering, Business, and Liberal Arts on and off for the last 30 years, I was witness to the continuing entrenchment of the hierarchy of research, created before I was born and continued and accelerated by the academic "community" itself during my lifetime and most likely long after I depart. This community is, however, in part a meritocracy with hard work and solid research occasionally rising to the notice of the top of that hierarchy. While always protective of their respective disciplines, including raising more than an eyebrow to any perceived interlopers from other disciplines, quality work is usually acknowledged.
    In all academic disciplines the final reporting of results is highly dependent upon the words chosen and how they are strung together, and, rightly so, this is in great part the basis upon which the research is judged. Given the professor’s credentials, I would assume that he knows this even better than I. When he writes a piece to inform and influence public opinion on the serious matter of public health, he bears the responsibility of being no less rigorous in his research and no less careful in his choice of words. When he titles his piece “Free-Range Trichinosis” in our journal of record, we expect this 21st century Sinclair Lewis to deliver on the details of his research. Indeed, when he writes: “This study, though, brings us closer to a more concrete idea of why the free-range option can pose a heightened health threat to consumers.” he brings the hammer down for his readers, most of whom don’t have time to find and read the report that is the foundation of his piece. If however, one did have the time to find and read the report one would read that at least one of the results of the study differed significantly with the results of a study conducted in Canada, and one would also read the following: “The finding in this preliminary study warrants the need for a robust epidemiologic study to determine the role of various production-associated risk factors in the two production systems on the safety and wholesomeness of pork products…”.  I would suggest that this is a bit more egregious than the above writer’s characterization of “a bit fast and loose…”

    Instead of worrying about how long after the first wild pig took a handout from a scheming human that its upbringing ceased to be natural, the professor might have enlightened us in the collective wisdom gained over the millennia by small holding farmers raising 50 pigs at a time without the luxury antibiotics, hermetically sealed barns and acres of animal waste retention ponds, the wisdom that kept most people safe from the parasites in question. I guess those generations of folks just don’t know what “consistently flavored” pork they missed out on. And, as to the above writers comment: “How can a pasture system be safe at a large enough scale to displace the 90,000,000+ hogs that make their way through the CAFO system each year?” I guess that it would be just as impossible to reestablish a system of “mom and pop” diners in this country to replace the tens of thousands of fast food chain restaurants that bring so many such safe and consistently flavored food.

  7. The fact remains, if you read the original research, no Trichinosis was found in the two pigs. Instead they were “seropositive for Trichinella” which is a totally different thing and could have been triggered by exposure to non-Trichinosis causing species. McWilliams' Op-Ed article wasn't science, it was opinion. It is written to cause doubt, fear and hysteria by playing on emotions rather than reason.

  8. pantagruel55 says:

    A corrected version...

    Having been a part of the research community - both academic and commercial - in the broadly categorized fields of Engineering, Business, and Liberal Arts on and off for the last 30 years, I was witness to the continuing entrenchment of the hierarchy of research which was created before I was born and continued and accelerated by the academic "community" itself during my lifetime and most likely long after I depart. This community is however, in part, a meritocracy with hard work and solid research from the hinterland occasionally rising to the notice of the top of that hierarchy. While always protective of their respective disciplines, including raising more than an eyebrow to any perceived interlopers from other disciplines, quality work is usually acknowledged.

    In all academic disciplines the final reporting of results is highly dependent upon the words chosen and how they are strung together, and this is in great part the basis upon which the research is judged. Given the professor’s credentials, I would assume that he knows this even better than I. When he writes a piece to inform and influence public opinion on the serious matter of public health, he bears the responsibility of being no less rigorous in his research and no less careful in his choice of words. When he titles his piece “Free-Range Trichinosis” in our journal of record, we expect this 21st century Sinclair Lewis to deliver on the details of his research. Indeed, when he writes: “This study, though, brings us closer to a more concrete idea of why the free-range option can pose a heightened health threat to consumers.” he brings the hammer down for his readers, most of whom don’t have time to find and read the report that is the foundation of his piece. If however, one did have the time to find and read the report one would read that at least one of the results of the study differed significantly with the results of a study conducted in Canada, and one would also read the following: “The finding in this preliminary study warrants the need for a robust epidemiologic study to determine the role of various production-associated risk factors in the two production systems on the safety and wholesomeness of pork products…”.  I would suggest that this is a bit more egregious than the above writer’s characterization of “a bit fast and loose…”

    Instead of worrying about how long after the first wild pig took a handout from a scheming human that its upbringing ceased to be natural, the professor might have enlightened us in the collective wisdom gained over the millennia by small holding farmers raising 50 pigs at a time without the luxury of antibiotics, hermetically sealed barns and acres of animal waste retention ponds, the wisdom that kept most people safe from the parasites in question. I guess those generations of folks just don’t know what “consistently flavored” pork they missed out on. And, as to the above writers comment: “How can a pasture system be safe at a large enough scale to displace the 90,000,000+ hogs that make their way through the CAFO system each year?” I guess that it would be just as impossible to reestablish a system of “mom and pop” diners in this country to replace the tens of thousands of fast food chain restaurants that bring so many such safe and consistently flavored food.