Pigs & Fish in the News - Pigs, Big and Small Farms, Lethal Bugs, and the Op-Ed that Launched a Million Posts

While I've been breathlessly trying to catch up on Denver/IACP happenings, other things have been, well...happening. Instead of waiting for that mythical time when I'll have...more time, thought it best to get something out to those of you patient readers who are stopping back though I've been lingering too long between posts.

So, we know my favorite topics include Pigs and Fish. Exciting things happening in both arenas.

First Pigs -

The New York Times Op-Ed piece on pigs and pathogens spawned a rapid-fire response and counter over the last week. Research was sponsored by The National Pork Board. Said sponsorship not initially disclosed. Everyone's knickers in a twist. A couple of things might have gotten lost in the kerfuffle. One, the assertion that much research is sponsored by special interests, and whether that makes it, per se, less valuable or less reliable. I don't have any special insights into this but it strikes me as reasonably likely to be true. McWilliams says: "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)." I have no reason to disbelieve this, but I'm not in the business of research or even journalism about research.

Maybe research can be funded from sources we don't like but still be valuable? It strikes me as wishful thinking to believe that Universities are sufficiently endowed to sponsor such research as we need. Clearly our government is inadequate to pick up the slack, even where public health and safety is concerned. So where else will the funding come from?

The issue is two-fold. One, the integrity of the research itself. Is the study well-constructed? Does it measure what it purports to measure? Does it do so with reliability and validity? And secondly, are we bringing our own critical analysis skills to the story as it is presented. 

Another thing that got lost in the back and forth on the pig story was a careful look at what this study actually purports to show. We as a public sort of jumped to "which pork is safer: CAFO or Free range", I think. Indeed, McWilliams Op-Ed piece begins: "IS free-range pork better and safer to eat than conventional pork?"

In his rebuttal to the dust-up, published here in the Atlantic, the author allows that he was thinking like a writer, not a scientist when he fudged "the difference between testing positive for a pathogen and testing positive for the antibodies of that pathogen. You can test positive for the antibodies of a disease and still not have it. It's very unlikely, but possible." 

And this brings us to another question. Even given McWilliams' admission of the difference that got fudged, is the question of "safe pork" (a large question) answered by this narrow view into seropositivity? I don't think so. 

It stands to reason that CAFO animals given prophylactic antibiotics should have less disease than free-range non-vaccinated animals, doesn't it? Yet to my knowledge this study did not look at the dangers of the antibiotics themselves and their effects in the food chain. Recent news about MRSA, and its prevalence near CAFO farms is not answered by the study McWilliams cites.

MRSA infection is caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria — often called "staph." MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It's a strain of staph that's resistant to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it. MRSA can be fatal. Some suggest that the alarming increase in the occurrence of MRSA might be related to the widespread prophylactic antibiotic use in CAFO animals raised for human consumption. Are we breeding animals for consumption that are incubators for our own demise? Admittedly, not a scientfically phrased question but one worth asking, I would submit. (See Nicholias Kristoff's piece Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health.) For another alarming look at the issue of MRSA in animals, humans and what we know and don't know, see Ethicurean here, Straight to the superbug supersource: Q&A with Maryn McKenna about MRSA in people — and pigs

Apparently, we don't even know how prevalent Human MRSA is nationally. A few states have made it mandatory to report and no one on a national level has been "systematically checking food animals for the bug, and no one is checking retail meat." That from Maryn McKenna author of the upcoming: “Superbug: The Rise of Drug-Resistant Staph and the Danger of a World Without Antibiotics”

There are of course other reasons to eat naturally raised, ethically raised local pigs. Quite likely you will support a small family farm, and get tastier pig in the bargain. It is likely your local pig will be raised in a way that is not as damaging environmentally, and that's worth considering in the overall equation if you ask me.

So what are my take-aways?

1. I'd rather know my farmer, and build a relationship where my concerns for how the animals are raised and how the environment is treated are taken into consideration.

2. I'd rather that we had someone on a national level conducting data gathering, first so we understand how much MRSA is in the population, which strains and then they can begin to study what's going on with transmission.

3. I'd rather that we have transparency in our data reporting and civility in our critical analysis of each others work. If nothing else is clear from all this - it is clear that we could all benefit from rowing in the same direction. Resources are too thin and issues too critical for us to waste any time on reporting that obfuscates or oversimplifies the issues. 

4. I'd rather be able to enjoy my pork with less worry and less guilt and I'm sure you would to.

So what can we do? 

Here's a source I just found cited in Ethicurean for great teaching tools. Yes! is a magazine  all about building healthier, community-based food delivery systems. Great infographic (or chart) that illustrates the food growing and distribution systems and all the impacts along the way.

Another idea is to open the dialog about the food you're buying with whomever you are buying it from. Ask where it's raised, who's the farmer, what are the standards? Find local friends you can split a meat CSA with. I have begun adjusting to eating less meat, but of a better quality. Evens out price-wise, I think. On balance, better for my long-term health and the economic and environmental health of my local food shed. It's a goal, anyway.

In Boston, Jamie Lionette is a great local butcher who is interested in locally raised meats. Ron Savenor is another you can speak to and make your desires and concerns known. Only when they hear from their customers that these things matter, will they, in turn, create the market for those farmers doing things the right way.

Breed diversity and preservation is a related matter. One of the dangers of losing breed diversity is the loss of a significant part of the food chain should disease or pests evolve to affect common livestock breeds. Many projects exist to increase and preserve diversity in our food chain, from the Endangered Hog Foundation to the Chefs Collaborative/RAFT Grow-Out project. (read more about it here.)

The Other White Meat at IACP

This apron was signed by the crazy Kim O'Donnel after she draped the give-away on me at the IACP culinary showcase. I'd tried to avoid "The Other White Meat" booth babes but they were relentless. We had discussions about waste lagoons and runoff and all manner of icky CAFO issues. They insist that all is well and the government is monitoring them carefully and regularly.

I guess that's why all those peanuts slipped by...the government inspectors were too busy hounding the pork producers. Whatever.

What you can't see, is the inscription Ms. "A Mighty Appetite" festooned my apron with. No, I cannot repeat it here. Suffice to say it was largely to blame for our belly laughs here...Really we don't have chins like this - really, we don't! And that's Russ Walker, Executive Editor of the newly spiffed up Grist.org. Looks innocent enough doesn't he? Don't believe it.

Me with American Guinea piglets at SullBar Farms in NH.