NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 13, 2009

Is free-range pork better and safer to eat than conventional pork?  Many consumers think so.  The well-publicized horrors of intensive pig farming have fostered the widespread assumption that, as one purveyor of free-range meats put it, "the health benefits are indisputable." 

However, as yet another reminder that culinary wisdom is never conventional, scientists have found that free-range pork can be more likely than caged pork to carry dangerous bacteria and parasites.  It's not only pistachios and 50-pound tubs of peanut paste that have been infected with salmonella but also 500-pound pigs allowed to root and to roam pastures happily before butting heads with a bolt gun, says the New York Times.

  • 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, says the Times.

Agricultural scientists have long known that even meticulously managed free-range environments subject farm animals to a spectrum of infection.  This study, though, brings us closer to a more concrete idea of why the free-range option can pose a heightened health threat to consumers.  Just a little time outdoors increases pigs' interaction with rats and other wildlife and even with domesticated cats, which can carry transmittable diseases, as well as contact with moist soil, where pathogens find an environment conducive to growth.  The natural dangers that motivated farmers to bring animals into tightly controlled settings in the first place haven't gone away, says the Times.

Source: James E. McWilliams, "Free-Range Trichinosis," Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2009.

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