Are Contrarians Helping or Hurting the Food Movement? Pork Op-Ed in NYT a Shill for Big Ag | Civil Eats

Are Contrarians Helping or Hurting the Food Movement? Pork Op-Ed in NYT a Shill for Big Ag

It is necessary to question our movement. Without a cold, hard look at the snags in implementing a sustainable food system, someone ill-informed will crawl out of the woodwork clinging to their credentials and poke holes in our arguments, whether with valid points or not, possibly shilling for Big Ag or just looking to market themselves as a contrarian.

Today, a free-range dissenter ended up in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, seemingly to defend factory farmed pork. (One wonders if the NYT was attempting to temper the excellent coverage Nicholas Kristof has had of pigs and MRSA of late)

John McWilliams’ argument — that the exposure to disease which brought pigs into the factory farm setting in the first place still exists, and therefore in re-implementing free-range we are no better than we started — has little to base in reality. This is a classic shill, as the study that he cites (Foodborne Pathogens and Disease) was funded by the National Pork Board, a group that defends the interests of industrial pig operations.  If the New York Times had bothered to fact-check, they might have seen that the parasite trichinia found “present” in two of the free-range pigs was actually only antibodies (The Center for a Livable Future goes into more detail), which leaves us uncertain whether they carried the disease or not, and renders McWilliams’ argument moot.

Aside from this, though, McWilliams is missing the point. Locavorism isn’t about free-range, its about getting closer to the source; shaking the hand that feeds you and thereby knowing, even seeing, where your food comes from.  The reason there are no worthy studies cited in McWilliams’ piece is because grass-fed farmers often run size-manageable and responsible operations.  They don’t cut corners precisely because they are held accountable by the community.

I’m thinking about two things here. First, where are the media in this story? And second, can these contrarian attacks help us build the movement, or are they purely a distraction?

In this instance it seems that the New York Times, in its desperation to sell papers, fell into the trap of story building over truth-finding. On Grist, Tom Laskawy wrote a great piece on the counter-productive and even dangerous world of FUD — the corporate tactic of creating Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt in the consumer so as to sell the status quo. As Laskawy points out, this Times op-ed falls right in line with the tenets of FUD — a result of the Times’ use of false equivalency. In other words, in the interest of creating drama, many newspapers of note have failed to vet stories properly — creating the false appearance that the arguments on both sides of a story are equal and leaving it up to the reader to make sense of it.  What we get then is always a confused and nihilist public, uttering things like, “but didn’t you see that piece in the New York Times, free-range is not necessarily better.” The question is, then, how do we reclaim the media, and disseminate real information to consumers?

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I think its a tough one to answer.  What I do know, is that at the farmer’s market, the answer lies with the beginning and the end of the food chain. Government needs to step in and lead on food issues with a better food policy agenda.  We’ve seen the beginnings of such a plan, with the White House garden and Kathleen Merrigan’s appointment as Under-Secretary of Agriculture — but these could end up being distractions. We must focus on the decentralization and diversification of the food system — starting with rethinking farm subsidies and hospital, school and military procurement — and insist that scientists get public sector funding and freedom to do real scientific studies (For the hell of it, lets start by really testing GMOs). The media also needs to press the reset button (Maybe this will happen on its own with the closure of so many papers) — this is our press, for goodness sake, not the voice box of industry. In the meantime, every eater has a responsibility to ask where their food is coming from, and when confused, to dig deeper and ask more questions.  These changes at the top and bottom are interdependent, and will not occur unless simultaneous.

Finally, I do think it is possible for opposition to make us stronger, and more able to articulate what it is we stand for and why.  In his recent book, Getting Green Done, Auden Schendler writes that we must take a long hard look at the bumpy road to implementing sustainability — and learn from our mistakes — something that at times we are afraid to do for fear of backlash. In the food movement, for example, we’d ignored food justice issues for a long time.  But through criticism that our movement was elitist, and that better food was only for the rich, we have begun to unravel this thinking and work towards building a more inclusive and fair food system.

Of course, we don’t always get a fair debate with our detractors. But it is still my hope that we can emerge from these arguments a more steadfast movement.

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. Shawn
    Thank you, Paula, for clarifying the issue on free-range pork and the media. When I read McWilliams' piece, I smelled something fishy. I especially questioned his assertion that farmers moved to factory farmed pork out of concern for food safety. This is my first time at this blog, and you just got me hooked!
  2. N
    Great piece. Thanks so much for calling all of our attention to this.
    For those in the DC area, this upcoming conference (sponsored by Monsanto) promises to be a fascinating look at how the industrialized food sector is attempting to combat citizen movements for a fairer food system, as represented by this website. Hope someone can attend and write about it, I cannot:
  3. Great article and I agree with your points and conclusions. Once I saw yesterday that Marion Nestle had responded to the sloppy "science" side of the Op-Ed (which you frankly bring home even more clearly above) I realized that what really got under my skin about this article was the cynical if not mean-spirited positioning of free-range farmers as disingenuous hacks. He also between the lines insulted me and others who'd prefer to find an alternative to eating pork from large CAFO operations. Frankly he is likely building on the debate raging over at Ethicurean about how much one should charge a customer for well-raised pork (or food in general). Anyway, thanks for sharing your perspective and let's keep working at helping the folks who are doing things well get properly rewarded for their efforts.
  4. Marsha Weiner
    Great article ! Thank you. Crisp, clear, and deliciously considered. THEY are very crafty and well - crafted. WE need to be as well- and better; and in this piece you ARE!
    Tx again.
  5. Amerigo
    James E. McWilliams does make one valid point. It is more likely for outdoor pigs, on minimum medication, to contrtact Trichinosis, than a heavily medicated pig living in a controlled environment where humans have to wear biohazard suits to protect themselves from the ammonia and the pigs from communicable diseases. (due to their weakened immune systems from all the medication). Personally, I'll take the outdoor pork and COOK IT WELL DONE. This isn't beef, people. Medium rare loins and chops are a recent phenomenon.(Apparently freezing for one month will also kill Trichinosis.) Traditional dishes such as slow cooked ham, ribs, or pulled pork, all take care of any potential infections by cooking thoroughly. Citing Trichinosis as a reason not to eat pork is a classic scare tactic aimed at a confused public too helpless to cook thier own food properly.

    Thank you, Paula, for so well articulating everything that was wrong McWilliams' argument.
  6. Thanks, Paula, so well put. I was reading the article and thinking "I smell a rat!" When I scrolled down and saw the title of his upcoming book, "Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food ...” it all started to come into relief.
  7. Don't be sucked in by the Trichinosis scare. It is false. Read this article. Basics: they didn't find Trichinosis. What they found were two pigs on pasture with “seropositive for Trichinella” which is a totally different thing and could have been triggered by exposure to non Trichinosis causing species. Not only was it not Trichinosis but it is not even statistically significant.

    The difference between other disease exposures were also insignificant and there is the little fact that at slaughter all animal carcasses are assumed to be dirty so they have HACCP procedures for dealing with that. The problem comes from the Mega-Processors not following their own HACCP routines. Virtually all food borne disease comes from Big Ag, a little detail McWilliams chooses to ignore.
  8. The thing that everyone's missing is that the term "free range" is highly unregulated. You can keep your pigs crowded into a windowless warehouse with a tiny door to a 10' fenced in PAVED area and still be able to call your farm free range. As a result of this, the conditions on most "free range" farms is identical to on a factory farm. Same at many farmer's markets I would guess. Often the only difference might be that they don't use antibiotics on these "free range" farms, so of course they'll be more diseased! (or more seropositive as the case may be which of course makes the point moot anyway). However, when you have a TRULY free range farm, the pigs are so clean that the farmers no longer need to even have a vet any longer! We need to demand strict regulation of terms like "free range" and transparency of our products. It is in the industry's interest to hide these things from us as much as possible. Educate yourself. Read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. See "Food Inc." when it comes out soon, and best of all see the film "Fresh" directed by Ana Sofia Joanes when its playing in your area in a few months. As far as I can tell there are so few actual "free range" farms in the world that most people have no access to free range meat whatsoever, farmer's market or not. Joel Salatin's farm (featured in TOD) is one.

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