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[Ed. Note: Going vegan will eliminate all concerns about pork-induced trichinosis!]

From James E. McWilliams, New York Times

After all, if clean and humane methods of production cannot be developed, thereís only one ethical choice left for the conscientious consumer: a pork-free diet.

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, ďthe health benefits are indisputable.Ē 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. Itís 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.

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.

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 pigsí 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 havenít gone away.

This news is especially troubling for connoisseurs of fine pork. Pork lovers, supporters of sustainable meat and slow-food advocates have long praised the superior taste of the free-range option. According to the Web site of Legacy Manor, a Maryland farm that raises free-range pigs, it is ďthe way food used to taste.Ē Given such superlative enthusiasm, itís worth wondering how this latest development will play out among the culinary tastemakers.

It may be objectively true that animals living in a state of nature produce sweeter meat. There are hunters in East Texas who track wild hogs, slice off their testicles so the beasts will fatten and lose their gamy taste and then shoot them months later. These gentlemen swear by the superior flavor. Donít count on me to challenge the taste assessments of people who thrive on such blood sport. If they say itís better, itís better.

But most foodies arenít going to hunt wild hogs in East Texas. Instead, they look to free-range pork as a more civilized step toward wildness and, by implication, a more ďnaturalĒ taste. But hereís the catch: Free range is not necessarily natural. And neither is its taste. In fact, free range is like piggy day care, a thoughtfully arranged system designed to meet the needs of consumers who despise industrial agriculture and adore the idea of wildness.

To equate the highly controlled grazing of pigs with wild animals in a state of nature is to insult the essence of nature, domestication and wild pigs. A free-range system is engineered in part to achieve a producerís market-driven goal: protecting his squealing investments from natureís most obvious threats while allowing them a modicum of muscle-enhancing movement. Pigs lucky enough to land in this verdant playpen are endowed by the hand of man less with survival skills than with the ability to generate flesh retailing for $12 a pound.

Free range is ultimately an arbitrary point between the wild and the domesticated. That this arbitrary point is tricky business should come as no surprise. The long history of animal husbandry has been a fervent quest toward intensified control. Free-range pork boldly countered this quest, throwing it into partial reverse. The problem was that it went far enough to expose animals to diseases but not far enough to render the flesh truly wild. What people taste when they eat free range is a result not so much of nature but of human decision.

Even if the texture conferred on pork by this choice does lead to improved tenderloin, the enhanced taste must be weighed against the increased health risks. If we have learned anything from our sustained critique of industrial agriculture, it is that eating well should not require making such calculations.

Letís not forget that animal domestication has not been only about profit. Itís also been about making meat more reliably available, safer to eat and consistently flavored. The critique of conventional animal farming that pervades food discussions today is right on the mark. But it should acknowledge that raising animals indoors, fighting their diseases with medicine and feeding them a carefully monitored diet have long been basic tenets of animal husbandry that allowed a lot more people to eat a lot more pork without getting sick.

The fact that weíve lost our way and found ourselves locked in the mess of factory farming, should not deter us from realizing that ó if we genuinely hope to produce pork thatís safe and tasty ó instead of setting the animal world partly free, we might have to take greater control of it. Do not underestimate the importance of this challenge. After all, if clean and humane methods of production cannot be developed, thereís only one ethical choice left for the conscientious consumer: a pork-free diet.

James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of the forthcoming Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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We began this archive as a means of assisting our visitors in answering many of their health and diet questions, and in encouraging them to take a pro-active part in their own health. We believe the articles and information contained herein are true, but are not presenting them as advice. We, personally, have found that a whole food vegan diet has helped our own health, and simply wish to share with others the things we have found. Each of us must make our own decisions, for it's our own body. If you have a health problem, see your own physician.