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Opinion: The Dimensions of Clean

April 10, 2009

People engage in irrational cognitive consistency—the tendency (to oversimplify a bit) to believe that good things go together, or that bad things go together, even when they don’t, necessarily—all the time. Psychological studies have found, for example, that more attractive people are believed to be more intelligent, more successful, and so on, despite the existence of Donald Trump.

 

So it is in the food world. We like free-range animals, in part because we know that they taste better and have a substantially lower impact on the environment. We are wary of GMOs, in large part because the billions that they represent can lull the better angels of our nature (if not drag them into a dark alley and garrote them outright). These are the right instincts. But they cannot be unconditional. My own sense is that, if we are to be effective advocates for good, clean, and fair food, we must be responsible, informed, and balanced advocates. That means taking an unflinching look at some uncomfortable facts so that we can begin to address their implications.

 

An op-ed from today’s NYT illustrates this point. The op-ed, on the subject of free-range pork and health, brings to light some disturbing facts:

 

Scientists have found that free-range pork can be more likely than caged pork to carry dangerous bacteria and parasites. … The study published in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease that brought these findings to light last year sampled more than 600 pigs in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. It discovered not only higher rates of salmonella in free-range pigs (54 percent versus 39 percent) but also greater levels of the pathogen toxoplasma (6.8 percent versus 1.1 percent) and, most alarming, two free-range pigs that carried the parasite trichina (as opposed to zero for confined pigs). For many years, the pork industry has been assuring cooks that a little pink in the pork is fine. Trichinosis, which can be deadly, was assumed to be history.

 

A couple of paragraphs later, the author writes, “Pork lovers, supporters of sustainable meat and slow-food advocates have long praised the superior taste of the free-range option. … Given such superlative enthusiasm, it’s worth wondering how this latest development will play out among the culinary tastemakers.” And that’s the heart of the issue: How will it play out?

 

First of all, as Jerusha points out on the Slow Food USA blog, there are legitimate questions about the study’s provenance: the study was funded by the National Pork Board, a fact that is now mentioned in an Editor’s Note below the online version of the op-ed. Moreover, the authors found antibodies to the diseases, not the diseases themselves, in the pigs in question. (Edit: The original author’s response, found here, addresses these issues in more depth than I did in what follows and is well worth reading.) Many members of the Slow Food movement will be content to use these facts as a reason to ignore the findings altogether.

 

That, I think, is a mistake, and a bad one. We can’t just ignore the potential health implications of free-range pork. This particular study may (or may not) have been designed to make free-range pork look bad, and it may have been funded by people who have an incentive to do just that, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it succeeded. The researchers did find more antibodies in free-range pigs than in confined ones. Antibodies to diseases are evidence that a pathogen was present at one point, though they are not conclusive evidence that the pathogen remains in the animal’s system. And the story explaining the presence of pathogens—that free-range animals have a greater chance of encountering them than confined animals—is, unfortunately, plausible.

 

In order to be responsible advocates for good, clean, and fair food, we have to make a particular effort to face the facts that we like the least, because those are precisely the facts that our opponents can most effectively use against us. If the problems with free-range pork are genuine, we should be trumpeting them as well—and we should be working to find solutions to them that won’t be so expensive that they drive small farmers out of business. As the controversy surrounding HR 875 demonstrates, health regulations can be especially burdensome for small farmers. It would be best to be out front on this issue, voicing our opinion that it must be addressed in a way that incorporates both the health concerns of the nation and the needs of small farmers.

 

I mean, really… wouldn’t it be a beautiful irony if a New York Times editorial driven by data from a pork-industry-sponsored study prompted a government program to help small farmers prevent salmonella, toxoplasma, and trichinosis in free-range pigs—thereby making free-range pork more competitive?

 

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(Oh—and a final note for those of you attending our Cuban pig roast in May: The pig is from an Amish farm in Ohio but is not free-range… and we’ve confirmed that preparing a pig in a China box does in fact bring it up to hygienic temperatures. The preparation will be in the capable hands of City Barbecue’s Rick Malir, so we have every confidence that our pig will be not only safe but thoroughly delicious.)

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