Memo to NYT “Free-Range Trichinosis” Editorialist: Food Safety Advocates Can Handle Transparency | Civil Eats

Memo to NYT “Free-Range Trichinosis” Editorialist: Food Safety Advocates Can Handle Transparency

Last Friday, an op-ed hit the pages of the New York Times written by James McWilliams (“Free Range Trichinosis”) purporting that free-range pork was more likely to be contaminated with the deadly parasite trichonosis than its industrially sardined and antibiotic-overdosed cousin. The writer chose to take this information from a single study funded by the National Pork Board, a lobbying group for industrial pork operations, and neglected to mention that the the two free-range pigs (out of 600) had tested positive for antibodies of trichinosis, not specifically the disease itself.

The food policy wonks leaped, quickly exposing the holes in McWilliams’ alarmist piece.  (My two-cents is here) It seemed that leaving out the important details above left the author without a leg to stand on, yet The Atlantic was quick to give McWilliams a platform. He weakly defended his position, calling the National Pork Board funding matter a distraction, and half-heartedly admitted that he may have been wrong to leave out the details of seropositivity.  His limp-wristed retort included an admission that he was in fact a sustainable food supporter, playing devil’s advocate.

The only problem is, as McWilliams admits, this was a piece for lay readers, who without further information, could stop buying sustainable pork after reading such claims (and they won’t just be going vegetarian, as the author might have hoped).

Its worth congratulating the food writers who gave a retort to this piece, and it speaks to an important fact McWilliams seems not to have gotten: established sustainable food advocates and newbies alike can handle transparency.

This got me thinking about what a more considered and productive devil’s advocate would have done in this situation.  Instead of seeking only to shock the public with misleading information, a more nuanced critique (I’ll admit, it might not have made it into the Times, but thats another matter) could have presented the possibility that free-range pork is not all it’s cracked up to be, and balanced out this one-sided slam.

The root of the story, and the one I’d like to understand better, is the role of antibiotics in pig husbandry, and by extension, whether antibiotics are necessary or positive in any way.  An honest contrarian would have also disclosed the role of other serious pathogens like MRSA, which have been found in industrial pig operations where antibiotics are being used liberally to fatten up pigs. This would have served to give a better picture of hog confinement in general —  otherwise, McWilliams is only hurting the cause he claims to care about.

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A well-rounded critique of the work sustainable food advocates are doing in all arenas is valid. However in misleading the general public, and laying the contrarianism on thick, McWilliams didn’t start a conversation, but instead just threw in a rotten tomato.

The issues our food system faces are very serious, and one thing we can safely say is that industrial-scale animal operations have seen their day in the sun. Consumers are becoming more conscious of the treatment of the animals they eat, and from a food safety perspective, we can pretty confidently say that industrially raised meat is less safe. (Fortunately, there is more than one study to back this up). That being said, we have a lot of work to do, and everything we do will not be perfect.

Unfortunately, it seems that McWilliams has fallen prey to the wiles of marketing.  In seeking to market himself as a contrarian, he has even penned a book called Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.  Now honestly, did he pick out that title to scare the trichonosis out of people, or what? If he were a true sustainable food advocate, perhaps he would have written a book titled, A Closer Look at Locavorism: What’s Not Working and How We Can Fix It.  I might have been more excited to read that.

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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. Well said. Thank you.
  2. Matt Rosenberg

    Exactly right.

    I am not sympathetic to McWilliams. He chooses to focus on two criticisms of his Op-Ed and dismisses one as a "red herring." I don't think it was a "red herring" to point out that the source of funding for the study that forms the basis of his premise was the National Pork Board and apparently I am not alone as the New York Times placed this on their site:

    "Editors' Note: April 14, 2009 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." (Link:

    And his half apology for glossing over the science of a "preliminary" study does not sit well with me either. He misses many other points that you note and I too have serious issues with.

    1- How could he not discuss MRSA in such a comparison?
    2- Who equates grazing pigs with wild animals? This is a "red herring"
    3- "fighting their diseases with medicine and feeding them a carefully monitored diet have long been basic tenets of animal husbandry" However, All industrial pigs are given large amounts of antibiotics, sick or not. This has hardly been a tenet of animal husbandry and obviously has consequences he chooses to ignore.

    It seems locavorism is like liberalism, there is great profit in making up what "those people" believe. Looks like McWilliams will be cashing in with a his new book "Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly." Replace the word "Locavores" with Liberals and it could have been written by that pre-pubescent Ramesh Ponnuru or that bald headed midget neo-con Reihan Salam. I can already see McWilliams on Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck perhaps?

    If anyone really wants the scoop on industrial pork they should read this article from Rolling Stones: It will make your head spin and you will know why McWilliams is standard contrarian lit.
  3. Syd
    I still think he's a shill despite his protestations and I'm betting his book will prove it. But what makes me really not want to read it is his silly style of writing. I mean really. He should be entered in the worst opening lines contests.

    I just couldn't believe that line when I first read it but I was sure then he and the Pork Industry must be best buds (at least as long as he toes the other line). Apparently good writers have integrity so would actually investigate what they put their name on. I had to force myself to read past the first paragraph but as soon as I was done I immediately sent my own letter to the editor pointing out the overlooked MRSA details.

    Further, he points out that generic tastes are better than being sick and goes on to tout the large amounts of cheap pork people can now eat. Except the rise of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and many other health issues including immune issues such as lupus, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, have also gone up as cheap meat ingestion has. Cost of food and cost of healthcare have flipped in expense. I think medications to support a poor diet are a different kind of sick he's ignoring just as he is MRSA of were by regular NY Times writers (one of which commented about how important it is to cook pork well because of MRSA).

    And then there is the giant liquid manure pits that get breached by age, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornados, and more which then contaminate the waterways and groundwaters yet are also made possible due to taxpayer support (subsidizing poor pork and big corporations). Yummy!

    But the way pigs are treated in those places are the biggest nightmare. We don't treat our worst enemies that badly why would we to those we force the ultimate sacrifice upon?

    I completely resented the scare tactic attempt to force the factory farmed ways.

    Fortunately he seems to be his own worst enemy and will apparently do more to embarrass the industrial players than they have themselves.
  4. I have been following all the responses to McWilliams' op-ed piece since I read it last Friday. And what I've discovered, is that McWilliams really opened up the gates of hell. It appears that the organic/local community has just been waiting for someone like this to do something like this, so that we can unleash upon him the guns of reason from our vantage point up here on the moral high ground.

    But what are we trying to achieve? Sure, McWilliams was completely wrong. Sure, he thinks he's a muckraker. So what? Let him think so. As long as us real sustainable food supporters construct a new, transparent food industry, let the man rake. I think we need to spend less time discussing this defensive hypocrite and more time cooking.

    And I agree with Rosenberg (what a Jewish Lewis). McWilliams sounds like a neo-con talk show nut who belong on Faux News with the likes of Hannity.
  5. I'm with you on this - the sustainable ag/food movement needs critique, but it must be constructive. It can't turn into a struggle between CAFO operators scaring the public into thinking their meat is the only safe option, and sust ag/foodies scaring the public with the exact opposite message. Politics of fear .. it ain't no good.
    Maybe you should go ahead and suggest the new book title - it might not be too late to go at the book covers with some wite-out

    More here.
  6. Li
    The painful thing about that article is that it DOES scare people who are just trying to do the right thing. I'm a fairly new slow foodie / locavore and I'm trying to ease my husband into it. We JUST started buying local pork from a wonderful small farmer when my husband saw the NYT article. Thank goodness there are blogs like this out there to refute such awful scare tactics. Even if those pigs DID have trichanosis, proper food handling would eliminate most of the risk!

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