Slow Food Columbus

Opinion: The Dimensions of Clean

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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.)



8 responses to “Opinion: The Dimensions of Clean”

  1. Norma says:

    I found the SlowFood site via a USDA site–don’t remember which one. Except for the word “sustainable” in your goals, I’m supportive. Real food tastes better and is inexpensive. This word sustainable has a lot of political baggage and increasingly means green regulations which will raise food costs for everyone having unintended consequences for the low-income.

  2. Norma says:

    I found the SlowFood site via a USDA site–don’t remember which one. Except for the word “sustainable” in your goals, I’m supportive. Real food tastes better and is inexpensive. This word sustainable has a lot of political baggage and increasingly means green regulations which will raise food costs for everyone having unintended consequences for the low-income.

  3. Bear says:

    Hi, Norma, and welcome.

    I guess I’d have a couple of responses. Part of the goal of sustainable agriculture, actually, is to ensure that food remains available at a reasonable price in the long run. If we can’t continue to produce enough food to feed ourselves, supply and demand dictates that prices go up — exactly what happened from January 2007 to mid-2008 with the world price of wheat (which doubled), corn (up 1.5 times), and rice (nearly tripled). Impoverished people who relied on inexpensive grains to form the bulk of their sustenance were hardest-hit. Food riots and protectionism broke out around the world.

    At the supermarket today, Americans might have to pay a little more for sustainable food, it’s true. But some of the cheapness of conventional food comes from government subsidies to big agriculture that small farmers don’t get. And some of the extra price of sustainable food is actually an investment — it can lower your health-care costs later on, and it acts as an insurance policy against catastrophic price increases down the line.

    So maybe the price on the label is a little bit lower for conventional food. But is it really meaningful to say that it’s lower, if you’re paying to lower the prices yourself with your taxes and your health care dollars?

  4. Bear says:

    Hi, Norma, and welcome.

    I guess I’d have a couple of responses. Part of the goal of sustainable agriculture, actually, is to ensure that food remains available at a reasonable price in the long run. If we can’t continue to produce enough food to feed ourselves, supply and demand dictates that prices go up — exactly what happened from January 2007 to mid-2008 with the world price of wheat (which doubled), corn (up 1.5 times), and rice (nearly tripled). Impoverished people who relied on inexpensive grains to form the bulk of their sustenance were hardest-hit. Food riots and protectionism broke out around the world.

    At the supermarket today, Americans might have to pay a little more for sustainable food, it’s true. But some of the cheapness of conventional food comes from government subsidies to big agriculture that small farmers don’t get. And some of the extra price of sustainable food is actually an investment — it can lower your health-care costs later on, and it acts as an insurance policy against catastrophic price increases down the line.

    So maybe the price on the label is a little bit lower for conventional food. But is it really meaningful to say that it’s lower, if you’re paying to lower the prices yourself with your taxes and your health care dollars?

  5. Mayda says:

    Perhaps the price of more natural food is the need to exercise the personal responsibility of properly cooking your food. I leave NO pink in my pork regardless of where it comes from. An I understand that animals and plants do not grow in a sterile environment and I would not want them to, it would not be natural. We have to return to common sense in our expectations of consumer protection.

  6. Mayda says:

    Perhaps the price of more natural food is the need to exercise the personal responsibility of properly cooking your food. I leave NO pink in my pork regardless of where it comes from. An I understand that animals and plants do not grow in a sterile environment and I would not want them to, it would not be natural. We have to return to common sense in our expectations of consumer protection.

  7. […] of disease antibodies in free-range animals.  Could free-range meat be less healthy?  At the time we wrote, In order to be responsible advocates for good, clean, and fair food, we have to make a particular […]

  8. […] of disease antibodies in free-range animals.  Could free-range meat be less healthy?  At the time we wrote, In order to be responsible advocates for good, clean, and fair food, we have to make a particular […]

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