Is Free-Range Pork Really Riskier?

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Curator's note: Like pretty much every advocate of sustainable agriculture, including our own Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman, I took immediate and sharp notice of James McWilliams's New York Times op-ed suggesting that pigs raised in the very epitome of evil, pig concentration camps, might have fewer pathogenic diseases consumers need to worry about. And got worried about the possible setback to the remarkable work of Iowa pig farmers, including the original leader of Niman Ranch pork, Paul Willis, that I witnessed first hand a few years ago and wrote a pretty rhapsodic Atlantic column about. First things first: I strongly support sustainable agriculture. I've never been in contact with anyone from the pork industry. I'm not a hired bullhorn for mass-produced animal flesh (even if I am from Texas). I don't even eat meat. More important, I believe that alternative agricultural systems must always remain open to scrutiny. Just because a small, sustainable farm operates outside the realm of conventional agriculture does not mean it's flawless. Agriculture, by definition, is flawed. I thus believe in frequent and intense self-examination. It's healthy, and sometimes, when done properly, even feels good.

As anyone reading this knows, I've endured a wallop of criticism over my piece on free-range pork in last Friday's New York Times. The condemnation scans the spectrum of civility. A butcher in Iowa has offered to remove my testicles. Marion Nestle, as well as a host of other smart writers, have not. But they have legitimately questioned why I did not do two things in my Times piece: a) reveal that the study I quoted, headed by Wondwossen Gebreyes of Ohio State, was funded with a grant from the National Pork Board, and b) claim that the pigs in the study tested positive for trichinella, salmonella, and toxoplasma--when in fact they tested seropositive for these diseases. I'd like to briefly respond.

Would a handful of credentialed scientists, the board of a respected journal, and a host of outside peer reviewers engage in a grand conspiracy?

The first criticism is a red herring. In the course of writing a book on the history of insecticides, I learned that it's very difficult for scientists to undertake large studies without industry funding. You think their universities are funding them? Not likely. Why do you think so many university scientists bail out of academia and go to the dark side of Monsanto and BASF? Money. Scientists, many of them reluctantly, depend on industry to carry out basic experimentation. Fortunately, this relationship is not inherently corrupt. Industries frequently end up supporting studies that do not present the results they desire. These results still get published (and the scientists, in turn, often lose their funding). Being fully aware of the realities of scientific funding, I chose not to cite the Pork Board, but the journal in which the Gebreyes study was published. Foodborne Pathogens and Disease is a prestigious peer reviewed journal. The scientists who undertook the study are well respected researchers in veterinary medicine working at top universities. These factors assured me that any undue pressure from the funding source would have been negated.

My critics, however, fingered the pork industry's involvement from the start as ipso facto evidence of the study's lack of credibility. Do they do the same when studies funded by the Organic Farming Research Foundation highlight the benefits of organic food? Think about it. Would a handful of credentialed scientists, the board of a respected journal, and a host of outside peer reviewers engage in a grand conspiracy to twist the results of a major study that only indirectly made CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) look like a preferred option? On the flip side, I know full well that if I mentioned in my lede the fact that the study was funded by the Powerful Pork People, a large portion of my readership would roll their eyes, pour another cup of Fair Trade coffee, and dig the Thursday Style section out of the recycling bin. And this is the last thing I wanted, given that these readers are the food world's movers and shakers--the very people I believe should take heed of the study and think seriously about the unintended consequences of producing food in the gray zone between the wild and domesticated. (Okay, I'm not sold on Fair Trade coffee or the Style section either--but these are fights we can have later).

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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