Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Of Pigs and Shills

So - last Friday this prize of a guy wrote this Op-Ed for the New York Times.  I apologize if you can't open that last link - in case you can't I will state his basic argument.  Basically, his point is that buying pork from a local farmer who raises his animals humanely and doesn't pump them full of hormones and drugs WILL KILL YOU.  He quotes a study that says that the incidence of salmonella is higher in free-range pigs than in "confined" (i.e., factory-farmed) ones.  Now, the percentages he quotes are 54% vs. 36%, which seems like sort of a silly comparison to get all bent out of shape about.  I mean, I'm going to get freaked out about half, but not about a third?  And he reports in dread tones that 2 out of the 600 free-range pigs examined had trichinosis. TWO!!!  And that if you were to eat the meat from these animals without cooking it, you could DIE!!!!

Mr. McWilliams then goes on to explain that because of this report, "foodies" should rethink their naive notion that when they're buying free-range they're getting the meat of wild animals, that free-range pork is cultivated as well.  A point which I'm sure "foodies" everywhere are horrified to discover, because we all thought they were skipping around with unicorns in a primeval forest somewhere.  And he ends by saying, basically, eat the factory-farmed stuff or don't eat pork at all, because pork grown locally, humanely and transparently WILL KILL YOU.

Well, guess what?  This Editor's note has now been appended to the piece:

"An Op-Ed article last Friday, about pork, neglected to disclose the source of the financing for a study finding that free-range pigs were more likely than confined pigs to test positive for exposure to certain pathogens. The study was financed by the National Pork Board."

So fucking brilliant.  OF COURSE it was.  

Now, I understand the NYT's desire to get contrarian opinions into their paper.  They once hired me to write a piece dissing on green markets (and it brought me a galaxy of fun, I'm here to tell ya.)  But there's a difference.  I wrote about some of the underlying class issues involved in shopping at green markets, and about a certain brand of smugness certain foodies exude when extolling perfect peaches.  I did not quote a study by Del Monte saying that fresh locally grown fruit is POISON.  

McWilliams is a shill, sure, and possibly evil - though he did write this book on pest control and maybe just has Asperger's or something.  But The New York Times is who really deserves blame here.  To publish something so deeply riddled with errors (McWilliams talks about 500 pound pigs, which is about twice as large as the average mature Berkshire pig), so damaging to a movement dedicated to humane farming, healthful food, and environmental responsibility - a movement that deserves, if not uncritical support, at least careful and respectful consideration - and so unthinkingly supportive of corporate farming, is deeply irresponsible.

The editor's note don't cut it, NYT....


Blogger Holly H. said...

Agreed. I don't understand why so many people are coming down hard on farmer's markets and the whole idea of sustainable eating. If enough of us stick with sustainability, the rest of the herd gets a longer drag time to keep eating their way. And ok, so mayyyybe farmer's markets aren't the 100% solve all for everything, but how can anyone argue that they're not at least a crazy amount closer to the answer then sticking with the same old thang. Meh.

8:55 AM  
Blogger moparsandvampires said...

"locally, humanely and transparently"--obviously there is nothing I could say to convince you to reexamine your facts and opinions. But have you ever spent time with some conventional farmers? They don't hate animals and what do you think they are so non-transparent about? I would rather eat pork that didnt spend its time grubbing in the dirt eating toads and whatever else it finds. Also I enjoy pork with no chance of Trichinosis. Pigs will eat ANYTHING and there is a reason free-range has safety issues.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Julie Powell said...

I have no question that there are health issues to be explored on this, and I am not saying that all conventional pig farms. I never said conventional pig farmers hate the animals - just because there have been many well-documented cases of abuse doesn't mean we should tar all conventional farmers with the same brush.

I have tasted conventional pork and free range pork and free range, to me, tastes better. I'm not overly concerned with the pathogen issue - but that's just me. I have other reasons for supporting small farmers, but there's no reason we can't have a discussion about that.

What I object to is that, yes, there IS a lack of transparency. First of all, I happen to know that getting into most corporate-owned pig farms IS almost impossible to do. And do you not see the significance in the fact that the study being cited was financed by the National Pork Board, which has a huge vested interest in maintaining status quo or avoiding making any changes that might put a dent in their profit margin? (Not to mention a considerable presence in DC to protect that vested interest?) Which is their prerogative. But it does make the science they finance somewhat suspect. And the fact that the NYT conveniently forgot to research that small point says to me that the editorial board is not exactly super-excited about transparency either.

This isn't an argument about organic vs conventional, free range vs confined. It's about know where the meat you eat comes from. I happen to prefer local meat, pasture raised without use of hormones and not stuffed to the gills with anti-biotics. Someone else might prefer a leaner product, or one that is a bit less likely to be infected with salmonella or trichinosis. It's everyone's choice. But if it's pouring out of a big machine that's being protected by enormous corporation with insufficient oversight and more concern for profit than for their customers' health or their animals' welfare (I'm not saying the workers in these farms don't care, btw), then there's simply no way to know WHAT's on your plate.

9:52 AM  
Blogger drdave said...

The point is that confinement raised pigs have zero trichina. We tested several hundred thousand carcasses and never found a single one positive for trichinosis. Outdoor pigs have access to all kinds of wild animals that they kill and eat. I tried some pork from the farmer's market once and I will never do that again. I like my consistent, safe, flavorful pork I get at the supermarket and want to keep having access to it.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Zora said...

Thanks, Julie. I read that op-ed and was just baffled--especially the weirdly condescending tone toward the false utopia of free-range. Dude, we know--pigs are domestic animals.

Anyway, I was traveling so didn't get to see the followup the NY Times posted. Way too little, too late. It should've been pretty clear the guy was coming in with a mega-money-backed angle in the first place.

12:50 PM  
Blogger moparsandvampires said...

I would say its not a lack of transparency- Do you think Intel or AMD would let wander around their clean rooms where they make processors? They dont want the risk of contamination-humans carry too many bugs and can track others in.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Julie Powell said...

Oh, come on. Of course it's a fear of transparency! You cannot tell me contamination is the problem here. They let people into hospitals, don't they? These people don't want to have to answer to government or the public about their methods, which are cheap and profit-making. Fine. But I reserve the right to remains skeptical when I'm forbidden to see what's going on inside those farms and abbatoirs.

And, as I've already, said, if you like your meat doped up and 100% trichinosis free, I can understand that and you have the right to it, I suppose. Just two things (both repetitious):

1) I personally prefer the taste of free range meat, and the fact that I can follow precisely what happens to the animal on it's journey to my plate, and am willing to sacrifice any incremental bit of safety. I'm not forcing anyone else to make that choice, and it's disingenuous so suggest that's what I'm saying.

2) My problem, again, again, again, is that the National Pork Board has ZERO credibility when it comes to this. It is obvious what their agenda is, and that they'll pay to see that agenda advanced.

3) (okay, I have 3 points) While I respect and understand the concerns and dangers surrounding trichinosis, to focus on it solely, at the expense of, say, the carbon footprint of corporate farms or questions of humane treatment or the health issues brought up by the intensive use of hormones and anti-biotics, is to me indication that Big Pig, or whatever you want to call it, has picked up the one point they MAY have that they will hammer and hammer and hammer to keep them rich and things just as they are.

1:25 PM  
Blogger KWu said...

Go you, Julie! Especially the point of just personally making the choice of not being overly concerned about the pathogen issue--the study tested dead, uncooked pigs, right? I haven't ever had any of those on my plate.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Kierstin Bridger said...

What's hot? Eating sustainablyand conscientiously, right? So riding on the coat tails of of a "trend" will get you buzz.
He must be of the school of any publiciity is good publicity...even if it makes him look like a lunatic/whore for corporate pork.

9:02 PM  
Blogger youknowme said...

"My problem, again, again, again, is that the National Pork Board has ZERO credibility when it comes to this. It is obvious what their agenda is, and that they'll pay to see that agenda advanced."

Have you talked to anyone from the National Pork Board? Do you know what they are about, or are you going off of what you want them to be about? Perhaps before you go off the handle about how evil and biased you think the National Pork Board is, you should visit their website, or better yet actually talk to someone. You may be surprised to find out they too support niche pork (http://www.nichepork.org/). If their motive was to discredit the kind of pork you prefer, I would find it silly for them to waste money promoting it as well. I guess that goes back to the purely for profit arguement you made earlier.

7:54 AM  
Blogger EB of SpiceDish said...

YOUKNOWME---- The National Pork Board, like the USDA Organic board, or the Milk Processors Board...is in the business of selling factory farmed products. Period. In any way possible.

8:44 PM  
Blogger youknowme said...

EB of SpiceDish - Again, I point you straight to the source. Directly from the NPB website. "The mission of the National Pork Board is to generate added value to the U.S. Pork production industry by creating and executing forward-looking promotion, research and consumer information programs based on principles reflecting its investors commitment to quality, innovation and stewardship." They are in the "business" of promoting pork, period. Investors=producers.

With the help of the NPB website on niche pork I mentioned in my last comment I was able to find a local farm that raises "Natually & humanely pasture raised with no antibiotics or chemicals and no added hormones" pork. Though I personally do not purchase this type of product, I now know who to contact to get it, within 10 miles of my home, thanks to the National Pork Board.

6:15 AM  
Blogger moparsandvampires said...

Let people into hospitals? Thats a completely illogical comparison. And as someone who had cancer- there are places in a hospital that you can keep youself separated from anyone you deem necessary-including family members with their grubby kids. The bottom line is that you can get into those places but it takes a little work so lunatics dont wind up destroying something they dont agree with. You claim this big conspiracy with the pork board keeping you from the things you are entitled to. No one is stopping you from going to the farmers market to get what you want and to take the risks you want. But conventional pork is 99.99% safe and yours is not- and for the public at large it is not a good idea. Do you, and others with no background in science or agriculture get to decide what is OK for people to give their kids? For people who are immuno-comprimised? For people who lack real facts and/or intelligence to make informed decisions about which to eat? No, and for that reason others need to step in and error on the side of safety of the public at large.
I will agree that a better balance could be found in somethings- but you people are just as gulity of sitting on your side of the fence and screaming about the dangers and negatives of conventional. Some of you need to remember that conventional needs to exist just as much. When that organic dairy cow calves for the first time and contracts mastitis-requiring a treatment of antibiotics to help her just like you would a human with the same thing. Where would she go after that? She is now exempt from the the strictness that is organic labeling- so the only place she can exist outside of my backyard, because I could actually milk her when need be, would be a conventional farm somewhere.
If you had the money and power you would do just what you claim the pork board does to advance only your agenda and I am not comfortable with that.

12:42 PM  
Blogger moparsandvampires said...

EB of spicedish- Do you spend your whole life chanting "down with the man"? Seriously, my father is a small conventional dairy farmer on several dairy boards- the meetings are not held in some secret back room to discuss how to push their "agenda" Usually pretty mundane stuff from a bunch of farmers. There is nothing factory about many farms who use conventinal methods- and the move away from that size of farm has been prompted by the fact that prices for things like milk have not gone up with the cost of living. My father gets basically the same milk check he got over 20 years ago- much worse when you adjust for inflation.
People who know nothing about these boards should not be making broad, hate-filled denunciations with no basis in fact and no research. As YOUKNOWME said- have you even visited their webpage or that just assumed to be a cog in the Man's propaganda manchine to crush you down?

1:01 PM  
Blogger Julie Powell said...

Youknowme... Point taken. Thanks for the insight.

However, I am still confused as to the disconnect between what I'm saying and what some people here seem to be hearing. From the beginning I have been accused of saying conventional farmers "hate the animals," that they're evil and should be stopped. Now, I do have problems with corporate industrial farming and with the lack of transparency in the process. Absolutely. But my problem with Mr. McWilliams' Op-Ed was not that it was expressing doubts about local, small farmers' product - of course health issues should be addressed! After all, it was people's health concerns with the hormones and antibiotics in industrial pork that sent them looking for another alternative. But it seemed to me, as a person who knows small farmers and others who are passionately involved in knowing where their meat comes from, that this piece represented a strange hatchet job on local farmers, and seemed unquestioningly to support industrial farming, as it is now practiced. He didn't address in any real way what the health, environmental and ethical issues might be in industrially produced meat, he basically said, "oh, yeah, factory farming is bad, we'll get that all cleaned up no problem" and left it at that. Facts were manipulated or simply wrong, this straw man of the mythical foodie who thinks he's buying meat from an animal that spent its life skipping through paradise before being lulled willingly into the sweet respite of death was set up and knocked down with supreme condescension, and overall I found the tone bizarrely dismissive and dangerously simplistic.

And this is a guy who is getting ready to release a book which seems to be about - and I've not read it, I will as soon as I can get my hands on a copy - how "locavores" are ruining the world. Really? I mean, I'm all for contrarian. But when did people who support small farmers become the bad guys? What are you afraid of? There's no Big Local. We're not going to invade your homes and make you eat something you don't want. A few thousand people want to do things a different way, and want to give other people a chance to experience the difference. Sure, many of us want changes seen made to the big system. Sure, many of us think that there are aspects to it that are disgusting, inefficient and, yes, at times, Wrong with a capital W. But who are we? A few thousand hippies and ardent food people, people with some ideas about animals and meat and the soil and our communities. We're not out to rape your children and steal your way of life. (Well, maybe some of us are, but every movement...um, say, the Republican party?... has its nutjobs....)

Conventional factory farming has made strides. Temple Grandin is a gift, and I admire MacDonald's for using its clout to get some of her recommendations put in place on a national scale. I will always eat local because supporting my community, reducing emissions, and eating meat that, to my mind, simply tastes better are my priorities. I realize it's a luxury on my part, and I'm also trying to eat less meat and appreciate what I do eat more. But I hold no illusions that corporate farming will continue to exist and hope there are practical ways that improvements can be made to the system, to how and when hormones and drugs are administered, to more humane treatment of both workers and animals, to a system that can better fend off mass contamination and enormously wasteful recalls.

And it seems to me that Mr. McWiliams' piece is essentially a smokescreen to avoid serious discussion about these issues in favor of demonizing a small group of people who, whatever illusions or misapprehensions they may hold, are trying with every fiber of their being to do something good.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Julie Powell said...

And, moparsandvampires: Personally, I am not an organic freak, and I'm willing to believe that there are different ways to ethically and healthily raise meat. I'm way more worried about Huge and Corporate and Having Very Powerful Lobbies That Can Prevent Things From Coming to Light than I am about "conventional" farming, as practiced by small farmers, vs. "organic", which is in many ways a pretty meaningless term. The meat I buy is not organic. Much of the stuff at most greenmarkets is not organic. But it is raised by People, as opposed to Businesses, and in buying it I am cutting out thousands of miles, gallons upon gallons of gas, and masses of money-making corporations between me and what I eat. I'm not down on your father, or on conventional farmers. I'm down on the business interests that ensure that people don't really find out what's on their plate.

1:53 PM  
Blogger youknowme said...

The long and short of it is Dr. McWilliams is an historian, not an agriculturalist.


2:00 PM  
Blogger Julie Powell said...

I know it. Which is another reason why I'm not sure why he's the person to go to to address this particular topic.

Actually, I know exactly why he was approached to write this - I know because I was approached to write one for similar reasons. He has a book coming out, one with a controversial title, that he wants to promote and the New York Times wants to exploit for site traffic and to be relevant to the current chatter. Every word I say is in fact selling more books and encouraging NYT to publish possibly irresponsible, certainly not-terribly well fact-checked stuff. So I'll be quiet now.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Julie Powell said...

Except to say - and then I'm stopping, for real, until I don't - that I do acknowledge that there is a conventional feeling out there that Factory Farming, as people with my basic set of beliefs call it, is this monumental opaque thing, and that isn't always entirely fair. I mean, there are large elements of truth to it. But not all conventional farmers, I'm sure, are pumping their animals full of drugs willy-nilly, clubbing them on the heads, and confining them so closely that they go mad and start eating one another's tails off. These are the horror stories, and to people like me they are potent. It IS happening, though, I would wager much more in the giant factories than in regular family-owned farms, and I, personally, want to work to see that changed. I want the government to care about such things. That doesn't mean I think all conventional farmers are the Big Bad or that we should burn it all down. I want change. Because I live in a democracy, I hope we can come to an agreement, eventually, about these things.

2:53 PM  
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10:44 PM  
Blogger Libby said...

I am glad Mr. McWilliams wrote the op-ed and glad you brought it to my attention. I haven't eaten a farm animal since I read Skinny Bitch last year. The documented cases of farm animals raised in filthy, crowded and abusive environments just made me think even more about my Karmic footprint. The one beautiful thing about a capitalist society is that you can crowd 8 chickens to a cage with their beaks sawed off all for the sake of a dollar... and as a consumer I have the right to make sure they never see another dime of my money. And I suppose the Pork Board is right to feel threatened by local farmers who allow their customers to visit and see for themselves where/how their food is raised.

11:11 AM  
Blogger MommaKuhn said...

Julie, Julie, Julie
Six degrees of gourmand separation…

I am personally inviting you to join my imaginary “unforgettable” dinner party consisting of famous women that I dream about eating with…..the guests are Ruth Reichl, Nora Ephron and now YOU!

I am the general manager of Sarabeth’s restaurant at the Whitney Museum and would love for you to come in for lunch/brunch!! (Sarabeth is actually my big sister!)

I am a fellow foodie and really need to thank you for all the times I’ve laughed out loud while reading your book during my daily commute into the city. I love my commute because I LOVE to read. Read, eat and cook! Not necessarily in that order…

I am totally inspired by your dedication and your writing style. And the fact that you love dogs.

Can’t wait to see the J&J movie….Meryl Streep is filming a new “Untitled” Nancy Meyers film and they used my sister’s bakery in the Chelsea Market as a location for some of the interior bakery shots. I can’t wait to see Meryl play Julia….hence my opening….six degreees of gourmand separation…I hope our paths will cross.


2:27 PM  
Blogger Katie Kiefner said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Megan Lynae said...

Oh my. Things got a little...heated, over here. I just came over to say that I noticed that you quoted Firefly in this entry. And I loved Firefly.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Julie Powell said...

Nicely spotted, Megan! Too rarely are my Whedon references acknowledged. And no one has ever made a comment about my Zorgonia Avenue t-shirt either....

10:57 AM  
Blogger Zora said...

There are Zorgonia Ave t-shirts?! Brilliant!

11:02 AM  
Blogger moparsandvampires said...

Libby...sweet god in heaven...no one saws the birds beaks off. What logical reason would they spend time doing that for? Its just a tiny piece so they dont hurt themselves. You are exactly who scares me- no facts whatsoever.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

Sadly this dude probably has never tasted uncured bacon from humanely raised pigs. His loss!

6:02 PM  
Blogger milo said...

Julie, please excuse the OT but I'd like to get in touch with you.

I'm from Italy and organizing with some friends a LitCamp in May (literary barcamp or something :) about writing on the web and beyond. Your story would be sooo perfect to feature in it!

If you agree I'd need to ask you some questions. Contact me at marcella.p [at] gmail.com and you'll make me the happiest girl on earth :)

(btw I did read your book and talked about it in my own food blog back in 2006)

6:04 AM  
Blogger Poor Man's Feast said...

Forgive me for not reading the entire string here. It did come out that the survey was conducted by the pork board. More focus in the meantime, needs to be paid to the Smithfield corporation and their little fetid manure lagoon problem in La Gloria, Mexico.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Goddess Case said...

Did anyone happen to watch the Nightline piece on Chipotle Mexican Grill? They don’t purchase factory farmed pigs.


At any rate, it’s a misnomer to think "factory food" equals quality and safety; E. coli 0157 was found in Nestle cookie dough!

11:57 AM  
Blogger Jade Adrienne said...

Oh wait... so the pigs that my father raises with his bare hands and treats as our pets are going to kill us with salmonella??? OHMYGOD!! How did I ever live to see my 21st birthday?!?! I've only eaten that stuff EVERY WEEK OF MY LIFE... Fucking Igmo...:)

6:19 AM  
Blogger 好文 said...


6:10 AM  

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