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

05/25/2011 01:15 pm ET

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.

A well-rounded critique of the work sustainable food advocates are doing in all arenas is a fair one worth considering. Unfortunately in misleading the general public, and laying the contrarianism on thick, McWilliams didn't start a conversation, but instead just threw 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, McWilliams 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.

Originally published on Civil Eats