In spite of this host of well documented health problems for both animals and people, McWilliams asserts that American consumers should worry about trichinosis in free-range pig farming, a disease caused by the parasitic worm Trichinella spiralis. Frankly, this is absurd. Here again history is helpful.
Decades ago, when many U.S. pigs literally lived in trash dumps, Americans were rightly concerned about trichinosis. As the 1953 Farmer Veterinarian's Handbook stated: "Pigs are infected by eating garbage" containing raw flesh contaminated with Trichinella worms. In 1950, 10 percent of U.S. hogs were fed garbage, making trichinosis a real threat. This practice has ceased, and, consequently, trichinosis has almost vanished. Center for Disease Control and Prevention records show that from 1997 to 2001 there were an average of just 12 U.S. cases per year—from all sources (including from eating wild animals, which is now the most common source).
As additional evidence—anecdotal but powerful—we also note that Bill oversaw the production of some 80 million pounds of pork from free roaming pigs in the 10 years he ran the natural meat company Niman Ranch. Not a single case of trichinosis ever surfaced.
Salmonella far more prevalent in caged hens
McWilliams also implies that Salmonella in laying hens is a greater problem with free-range farming than with caged hens. This is just wrong. McWilliams goes on to discuss other poultry diseases, implying that outdoor access leads to unsafe food, which is also untrue.
First off, one of his main sources for the claim is a report by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). But HSUS doesn't agree with him. In fact, Dr. Sara Shields, animal welfare expert and co-author of the very HSUS report he cites, told us that McWilliams was misusing the report, taking the statement out of context. "Curiously, Dr. McWilliams's excerpt stopped just before reaching a sentence that actually espoused the benefits of free-range production," she told us. The report's next sentence states: "... other disease risks are minimized by factors associated with the outdoor, free-range environment: Natural sunlight kills many pathogens and virus particles, and the lower stocking densities and access to fresh air typical of free-range flocks lower infection and transmission rates."
Moreover, other HSUS reports expand on the serious public health risks associated with confinement agriculture as compared to free-range production. According to Dr. Shields, "new research shows that the risk of Salmonella is much greater in conventional battery cage production—where hens cannot even flap their wings—compared to alternative systems that offer hens more room to move." A recent paper to which HSUS contributed describes a 2007 European Food Safety Authority report:
"...an EU-wide Salmonella survey was launched in which more than 30,000 samples were taken from more than 5,000 operations across two dozen countries. This represents the best available data set comparing Salmonella infection risk between different laying hen housing systems. Without exception, for every Salmonella serotype grouping reported and for every type of production system examined, there was significantly higher Salmonella risk in operations confining hens in cages."The paper goes on to explain that compared to battery cage egg production, the odds of Salmonella enteritidis contamination were 98 percent lower in free-range systems; for Salmonella typhimurium—the most common U.S. source of Salmonella poisoning—the odds were 93 percent lower in organic and free-range systems; and for the other Salmonella serotypes found, the odds were 99 percent lower in free-range birds. Not surprisingly, the European Food Safety Authority report concluded that "Cage flock holdings are more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella."
Numerous other studies have reached similar conclusions, according to Dr. Shields. "The scientific evidence is overwhelming," she told us, "that operations confining hens in cages are at the highest risk for Salmonella contamination."
More nutritious food
McWilliams never mentions nutrition, but for most consumers, it's an important consideration in their food choices. Serious research, summarized in the Union of Concerned Scientists's 2006 publication "Greener Pastures," has shown that food from pasture-raised animals is more nutritious. "Greener Pastures" reported that grazing dairies produce food that is higher in both the beneficial fatty acids ALA and CLA, an effect that was particularly pronounced in cheese from pasture-raised animals.
Likewise, a 2003 Penn State study found a dramatic difference in the nutritional qualities of eggs from pasture-raised hens: "On average, we saw about twice as much vitamin E and 40 percent more vitamin A in the yolks of pasture-fed birds than in the caged birds," the lead researcher reported. "The longer the animals were on pasture, the more vitamins they produced."
Bottom line: pasture farming kicks the butt of confinement production
James McWilliams seems to delight in throwing wrenches at the sustainable food movement. But this time he's come up with nothing more than a red herring. Claiming that consumers need to especially worry about the safety of food from pasture-raised animals is patently ridiculous.
Of course, we encourage everyone to learn about where their food comes from and do their best to ensure that it comes from a safe source. But there's no reason to fret that a pasture-based farm is less safe than a conventional operation, and every reason to believe just the opposite.
All credible sources—scientific research, practical farming experience, and common sense—tell us that farm animals are healthiest when provided the opportunity to thrive in environments where they can breathe fresh air, graze, exercise, and soak up the sun. Our parents told us as children to "go outside and run around a while" because they knew that activity and fresh air would keep us in good health. And so it is with animals raised for food. The healthiest, safest, and most nutritious food comes from farms that follow that sage wisdom of our parents.
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