Saturday, April 11, 2009

Reaction to NY Times Op Ed on Pork Production

My father used to tease me that I would sometimes get "worked up" if I thought something was not right. I guess this post would be a good example. This one's for you, Dad -

James E. McWilliams’ published an editorial, Free-Range Trichinosis in yesterday's New York Times. It provokes a response both because of its inaccuracies and its omissions. McWilliams cites a preliminary study of only 600 hogs as the sole basis for his assertion that “free range” production produces pork that is less safe than industrialized production, and he promotes concern about the dangers of infection found in the natural environment. He did not reveal that the National Pork Board funded the study.

While food safety should be the concern of all producers regardless of method of production, McWilliams' attempt to evoke public health fear as a reason for preferring industrialized animal production over "free range" production is profoundly misleading.

Contrary to the tone of McWilliam's analysis, today's free range production is not a new system that was invented by chefs who seek the taste of wild game. Rather, it is a system of production that has been used by farmers worldwide for generations. Getting back to my father, that is how he raised hogs on our farm. Free range is not “an arbitrary point between the wild and the domesticated.” It is system of production that acknowledges that animals are living creatures with natural tendencies and that recognizes that they do better when the most basic of these tendencies are respected. In the words of the designer of livestock handling facilities and Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, Dr. Temple Grandin in her article, Animals are not Things, "There is a fundamental difference between cows and screwdrivers." The same could be said for pigs.

In contrast, industrialized animal agriculture, i.e., raising very large numbers of animals in extremely close confinement, is an experiment that has been with us for about fifty years. It arose not because of safety concerns (as McWilliams implies) but because of the economic efficiencies it provided to meat processors. While for processors, it has been extremely efficient, the externalities associated with it are overwhelming. It is now recognized as contributing to serious public health problems never before associated with American agricultural production.
  • Workers in confined hog operations have long been known to have serious health problems associated with their employment. Public health research over the last decade has now revealed similar health problems associated with living within a few miles of an industrialized swine facility. For example, an increase in diarrheal and respiratory illnesses including asthma is well documented in public health studies. See, e.g. on the CDC website, Neighbor Health and Large-scale Swine Production
  • Contrary to the sterile image of industrialized agriculture that is portrayed in the article, animals raised in such close confinement are under constant stress and must be given an almost continuous stream of antibiotics in order to prevent disease. It is estimated that 70% of all antibiotics produced in the United States are fed to animals in industrialized production, causing many in the health community to blame industrialized animal production as one of the leading causes for the rise in antibiotic resistant infections. See, e.g., The Pew Commission on Industrialized Animal Agriculture.
  • Because of their intense generation of urine and feces, industrialized hog facilities have been associated with the contamination of groundwater with nitrate as well as the contamination of our streams and rivers.
Thus, McWilliams' efforts to scare consumers away from "free range" in favor of industrialized production is rather absurd. He fails to provide credible documentation for his concerns about free range pork, and he fails to acknowledge any of the well documented problems with industrialized production.

Public safety concerns demand alternatives to intense industrialized production as it is practiced today. Free range is one such alternative. Does free range mean safe? No, perhaps not. But, at the very least it provides a starting point in that it does not generate public health problems just through its production. We can work with the rest of it.

For some other thoughtful blogging on the op-ed, check out Paula Crossfield's post on the Huffington Post, April 11, 2009.


Blogger Ben Gordon said...


A superb rebuttal to the McWilliams article. I recently posted a similar (but different) rebuttal on my blog. I am glad the community is responding to this, in my view, fraudulent article.

4/12/2009 10:58 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well stated. BIG PIG and its out-of-control PR machine have much to answer for.

Zoonotoc disease in intensively raised pigs is no run of the mill health scare. This is the real thing.

I have spent almost decade on this disaster, day after day: there at the beginning, with pigs and in pig country when the horror story started.

We decided on a self-sufficient lifestyle and walked into a nightmare.

There is little doubt that MRSA in pigs has been leaking into the hospitals for some years.

There was a nasty mutation to a porcine circovirus in Britain in 1999 which caused an epidemic that required huge quantities of antibiotics to handle the consequences.

MRSA in pigs was the result, usually the ST398 strain.

The Dutch picked up the problem about four years ago and commendably made everything they knew public.

Both circovirus and MRSA epidemics have now travelled the world along with accompanying cover-ups. It is quite a nasty situation - now coming to light in the USA.

MRSA st398, mutated circovirus and various other unpleasant zoonotic diseases have now reached American pig farms.

The people exposing the scandal in the US are to be commended.

I have extensive records available to anyone researching the link and can often answer general questions quickly and accurately.

Pat Gardiner
Release the results of testing British pigs for MRSA and C.Diff now! and

4/13/2009 12:42 PM  

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